Matå’pang, Migration, and The Case of the Stolen Mangos

Craig Santos Perez
May 9, 2013
Comments 3

My favorite season is mango season. Two towering mango tress grew at my grandma’s house on the island of Guåhan. We patiently waited and watched the fruit turn from green, to yellow, to ripe red.

I remember afternoons sitting around grandma’s table as she cut a ripe mango into two cheeks, crosshatching the orange flesh with a knife, careful not to cut through the skin. When she inverts the cheek, magic cubes form. Still life with convex mango.

Sweet, creamy, tart, floral, transcendent. Eating a mango is like eating sunshine. They say the Buddha often meditated in mango groves. They say the “mango’s kiss” awakens consciousness. Yet the mango also embodies immanence: it returns you to your body as its juices stain mouth, lips, fingers, hands, and clothes. Every bite roots my body home.


Mangos aren’t indigenous to Guåhan or to the Pacific. Mangos originate in South Asia. In the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, mangos are described as heavenly fruit and food of the gods. In some cultural stories, mango trees emerge from the death (or dead bodies) of a loved one. Thus, mangos are associated with resurrection and new life. Perhaps that’s why they say mango trees can fulfill your wishes.

Mangos have been cultivated for thousands of years. They have also migrated through global food trade routes. In the 4th century, mangos traveled to Southeast and East Asia; in the 7th century, they made their way to China. By the first millennium, mangos arrived in the Middle East and East Africa. A few centuries later, mangos journeyed to Europe and, by the 15th century, to South America, West Africa, and the Philippines. Mangos circulated to the Carribean and Mexico in the 18th century, and to the United States, Hawai’i, and the Pacific Islands in the 19th century.

Mangos became a hot global commodity not only for their taste and beauty, but also for their health benefits. Mangoes are rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and beta-carotene. Mangos are good for the kidneys and the digestive system. Mangos even contain bioflavonoids, which aid our immune system and help absorb energy from the sun. Additionally, parts of the mango tree can be utilized for medicinal purposes.

Around thirty-five million tons of mangos are produced globally each year, making it one of the most consumed fruits in the world. The mango is the national fruit and tree of several countries. Even the image of the mango has been consumed worldwide, as seen in the popular Paisley design motif (is that a mango on your bandanna?). Some believe the mango wards off evil.


The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam, published in 1905 and written by US Department of Agriculture botanist William Edwin Stafford, describes how Chamorros felt about the mango: “The natives value the fruit more highly than any other food product of the island. Indeed, the presence of a mango tree on a rancho enhances its value.”

My dad tells me a story about his great-aunt who raised and sold mangos on her farm on Guåhan. He used to go there as a child to help her with chores. She rewards him by letting him into a special shed that housed several handmade wooden dressers, each about five feet tall and several feet wide. She opens one of the drawers and he sees a dozen brightly colored mangos ripening atop newspaper. Each mango dresser contained several trays of mangos. Atop the dresser are dates of when the mangos were picked, and when they were stored. He describes this mango shed as “the vault.” Decades later, the smell of the mango vault still clings to his memory. During World War II, the military of Japan stole all her best mangos to feed the army.

It’s mango season in Hawai’i, which has evoked good and bad memories for me. I remember riding my bike to grandma’s house during the last mango season before my family migrated. I expect to see the ripening fruit, but I see no mangos at all. The trees were picked clean. My grandma says the mangos were stolen during the night.


I wish they would’ve stolen the radio or television or anything else. I felt angry that they stole my family’s food; moreover, they stole the mango moments my family would’ve shared together. So I ride my bike around the neighborhood, searching for clues. I only find a few discarded skins and mango seeds along the road leading to a series of makeshift settlements built by migrants.

I ride back to grandma’s house and gather rocks. I want to hurt whoever stole from us. She scolds me and calls me, “matå’pang.” She knows there is nothing we can do except turn the other mango cheek. She says if whoever stole it just knocked and asked permission, she would have shared. No one asks permission anymore. And even though I kept searching for evidence, I never found out who stole our last season.

After my family moved to California, mangos disappeared from my diet. My dad would occasionally buy some imported mangos from the Mexican and Asian grocery stores, but they never tasted as good to me. Plus, it just felt wrong to have to pay for mangos.


The other day I saw a man pull over onto the shoulder of the Honolulu highway, get out of his car, retreive a fruit picker from his trunk, and reach over into someone’s yard to take mangos. Was he a settler from another island, like me? Was he craving the heavenly fruit from our lost childhoods, like me? Did he ask permission? For a moment I wanted to join him. For a moment I wanted to throw rocks at him.

Today, I went to Kokua Market, a grocery co-op in Honolulu, and they had a bin of local mangos for sale: $2.99 a pound. I breathed them in. Mångga. Tested their ripeness. Mångga. Chose three. Mångga. They weighed two pounds and cost six dollars total. That’s two dollars per mango. Perhaps they call the mango “king of the fruits” because only kings can afford to buy them regularly. I have privileges that many other migrants don’t.

When I got home, I cut one mango open and toss its flesh in a pan with onions, garlic, ginger, chili flakes, and vinegar. I add some raisons, green beans, carrot slices, and leftover chicken. Put fresh cilantro atop and serve with Homestead poi.

As I do the dishes, I dream that someday I will have a home on which I can plant the tear-shaped mango seed lying on the cutting board.


3 thoughts on “Matå’pang, Migration, and The Case of the Stolen Mangos

  1. What a sweet (pun intended) discussion on mangoes!

    This reminds me of Milton Murayama’s “All I Asking for is my Body.” Have you read it?

  2. That was the the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. It made me cry mango tears. I genuinely felt that story.

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