December 26, 2016
That Time of Year
By Ana Portnoy Brimmer
A fictional look at the holidays in Puerto Rico from many perspectives.
La Familia Puelto Jiqueña
“Jorge, caramba, deja eso ya! Stop eating el cuerito!” Laura yelled at her husband as she mixed the arroz con gandules inside a caldero big enough to bathe in, tired of reminding him about his cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
Jorge snickered, quickly putting one last piece of the Christmas delicacy in his mouth, feeling victorious.
“Go to el colmado and get another six pack of Medallas, tío Dany is coming,” Laura snatched away the plate filled with pork rinds.
“Aaaaaaa buenoooo, in that case, I’ll get two,” Jorge made like he was leaving, quickly turned around, spotted the pork-rind plate, grabbed one with a dexterity reserved only for critical situations such as those, and ran off to do his wife’s bidding.
Laura rolled her eyes, feeling a smile inevitably creep up on her lips.
Laura and Jorge lived in Río Cañas Abajo, a rural borough in Mayagüez. They’d been married for 30 years, and were still bickering over the same things. It was 5:30 PM on Christmas Eve, and Laura was almost finished cooking the meal. El pernil was falling off the bone, resting in the oven; el arroz con gandules was perfectamente suelto; los guineitos had been cooked in the morning; the flan had been made yesterday; and the family was bringing the rest. And speaking of family, two cars pulled up on her driveway.
“Bendición! Laura, open the door, I’m carrying 7 dozen pasteles,” tío Jerry, one of her brothers, looked in through the screen door. Laura helped him inside.
“Cómo estás, Laurita?” María, tío Jerry’s wife, walked in with their 8 year-old daughter, Yarelmi, and kissed Laura on the cheek. “And your kids, have they arrived yet?”
“No, mi’ja, they’re on their way. And have I got a story to tell you! Vente, help me organize things in the kitchen,” they headed towards the stove, whispering and sharing complicit smiles over inside stories. Jorge returned with the two six packs of Medallas, one of the cans half-empty in his hand.
Abuela Evelyn and abuelo Pedro, Laura’s parents, came in through the screen door as well, laying down a big bowl of ensalada de coditos and a tray of tembleques on the table. And after them, everyone else started cascading in, like a waterfall after un aguacero, arriving one right after the other: tío Roberto (Laura’s second brother) and his family arrived with a plate of morcillas; tío Danny (Laura’s third brother) and his family brought arroz con leche. Cousin Mónica and her partner brought ensalada de papa; cousin Dolores and her kids brought cuajito; and Jorge’s sister, tía María Luisa, who had flown in from Orlando, Florida the day before with her family, brought the loudest parranda the barrio had ever heard. And not to mention the rest who arrived later in the evening: abuela Juana and abuelo Pipo; Laura and Jorge’s sons, José and Nestor; tía Solimar; second cousin Fernandito; neighbors Petra and Daniela; Don Carlitos from around the corner; great grandmother Josefina… Full was an understatement to describe the state of the house, and so was happy.
Someone turned on the TV; a local channel was going to feature a special Christmas celebration happening at la Plaza Cólon, the town square in downtown Mayagüez. And once those news cameras started filming:
“Ay mi madre, look at la plaza!” tío Danny yelled out in surprise, downing his tenth beer.
“It’s so bright!” abuela Evelyn covered her eyes.
“It’s so colorful!” little Yarelmi jumped up and down excitedly.
“It’s beautiful!” Jorge smiled, looking up from the sofa at his wife.
“Those are a lot of lights,” Laura responded with her characteristic sass, looking back down at Jorge.
La Familia United States of America
Barbara and Bob sipped their piña coladas, enjoying the deliciously warm weather December in the Caribbean has to offer. For as long as they could remember, they’d always spent Christmas back at home, in North Carolina, a large hickory ham in the oven, quietly sipping eggnog and roasting chestnuts over a warm fire. But their kids, Bethany and Brian, had long ago left home, starting their own families and beginning to host Christmas themselves.
This year, however, their first year as retirees, they decided to change things up a little bit, to do something different for Christmas, to break with tradition: they decided to travel over the holidays. And what better place to spend the winter break than the Caribbean, where “it is summer year round” and the sun “never stops shining.” Puerto Rico seemed like the obvious choice, since it was a territory of the United States, or something like that, they weren’t quite sure. But it was exotic enough for an adventure, while still American enough to be safe. So, they made reservations at the Rincón Beach Resort (they wanted to avoid the tourist experience in San Juan and had heard of the wonderful community of the town of Rincón) and were set to spend Christmas and New Years in the tropics. They had arrived the day before to Puerto Rico.
After finishing their piña coladas at the hotel, they decided to veer away from Rincón for a while during Christmas Eve, and go to a special Christmas celebration they’d heard was going to take place in the neighboring town, at la Plaza Colón, in downtown Mayagüez.
There was still light out when they arrived to the plaza, the sun making its way down slowly. The square, however, was filled to the brim with people. Children ran around adult legs, playing tag with each other; a group of white-haired men played dominoes in a secluded corner; and the vendors, their stands and carts circling the plaza, lured customers in with their Christmas smells, sights and sounds.
Barbara and Bob held hands as they walked along the food and artesanías stands.
“Dama, would you like to try some coquito?” a young man stuck his arm out from his cart towards Barbara, holding a sample cup with a white, viscous drink in it.
“Excuse me, some what?” Barbara replied, confused and trying to make out the substance inside the cup.
“Co-qui-to, it’s a coconut-based alcoholic Christmas beverage,” the young man explained.
“Oh, it’s like a version of eggnog, honey,” Bob concluded, taking the drink from the young man’s hand, smelling it, and then tasting it. “Hmmm, it’s not too-”
“ASALTO! Venimos desde lejos…” a group on the stage, located on the west end of the square, started singing, banging their pleneras, playing their güiros, maracas and palitos.
“Oh wow, what’s going on up there?” Barbara, eyes wide with curiosity, asked the young man who had given them a taste of the coquito.
“They’re a music group bringing a parranda to the people in the town square, it’s part of the events taking place today,” he responded, trying to attend to other customers.
“What’s a par-an-du?” Barbara asked again.
“A parranda is a musical Christmas tradition, usually involving going to people’s houses at night and surprising them with music and singing at their door step.”
“Oh, it’s like a version of Christmas caroling, honey, like we do in the States,” Bob concluded again, proud of his analogical reasoning.
And all of a sudden, right after the last light of day had faded, la Plaza Colón abruptly came ablaze, blinding, colorful lights shining from every direction. Lights trickled down from the trees skirting the square; the ferris wheel, carousel, and other carnival rides beamed ridiculously bright; the town hall was illuminated in layers, from top to bottom; and the adjacent alleys and streets were roofed over with twinkling glass bulbs.
“Look sweetheart, it’s just like in the States!” Bob exclaimed.
“Yes, pumpkin, but gosh is it bright!” Barbara slightly shielded her eyes.
La Familia Diasporican
It was only four o’clock in the afternoon, and it was already pitch dark outside. Angela had been living in New York for twenty years now, but she still couldn’t get used to the short days and biting cold of winters in NYC. She quickly moved away from her ticket booth and peered out the window on the wall behind her. It was snowing.
“Damn it,” she murmured to herself as she thought about having to cross six avenues to catch her 6 train.
Angela worked at the ticket station in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and lived up in Spanish Harlem (East Harlem), typically known as El Barrio, where a great majority of the Latinos in NYC, particularly Puerto Ricans, live.
But before New York, she lived another life, had another home. Angela was born and raised in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, where she met Ricardo, her husband. After they got married, they were having a hard time making a life for themselves and finding a job in the Archipelago, so they decided to follow in the footsteps of many Puerto Ricans before them by testing their luck on the mainland. They left Puerto Rico, hopeful but with a profound sadness in their hearts, and established themselves in Spanish Harlem, where their children, Nina and Sandra, were born and raised, where they eventually made a home.
It was Christmas Eve, and Angela had been scheduled to work till 5 PM. Her eyes were glued to her watch. And once that work clock struck las cinco, she couldn’t have been out of there faster. Her eldest daughter, Nina, was coming home from college for the holidays, and she wanted to be home before she arrived.
Mi amol, I’m on my way a casa. Kisses, Angela sent a text message to her husband.
Dale, hun, we’re here waiting for ya, Ricardo sent back.
Angela walked through the snow covered sidewalks of Midtown, having mastered a quick stride on slippery streets, tightening her jacket around her body and her scarf around her neck. She thought back to the warm December weather in Puerto Rico, the cool evening winds, the delicious, grease-infused food, the music-
Riiiiiiiiiiiiing, riiiiiiiiiiing! her phone vibrated in her pocket.
She looked at the caller ID, and picked it up, smiling.
“Wepa, Carmencita! How are you, mi’ja?” Angela answered ecstatically, happy to hear from her sister back in Mayagüez, PR.
“Ay Angelita, to’ bien, nena. I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas, see how you were doing,” Carmen answered back, her voice warm like sunny afternoons on the Island.
“Pue’, girl, Nina is coming home, Ricardo and Sandra are waiting with the food at home, and it’s freaking cold, as usual,” they laughed over the phone together. “What are you and the family doing tonight?” she asked as she crossed through Time Square.
“We’re in la Plaza Colón right now, there’s a special Christmas celebration happening tonight, so we decided to come check it out,” she replied, aguinaldos and laughter in the background.
And suddenly, tears started welling up in Angela’s eyes. She stopped cold in the middle of Time Square, buildings and billboards lit up from top to bottom, tourists and New Yorkers alike dodging each other and anything in their path. All of it faded into the background while Angela imagined herself back at la Plaza Colón, where her parents used to take her and her sister on Sundays for ice cream. Pigeons pecking around for stray crumbs, the smell of coffee and quesitos, the large fountain spewing water in the glistening sun, memories popped into Angela’s mind in quick bursts. She hadn’t visited in a while now, money had been tight for the past few years and life constantly in the way. And even though she’d left 20 years ago, at that moment more than ever, standing amidst the consumer and tourist Christmas bustle of Time Square, with her sister on the line across the Atlantic, her toes numb from the cold, she missed Puerto Rico.
“That’s lovely, Carmencita,” Angela sniffled, trying to suppress the sobs at her throat, “I really miss you guys. I miss being there.”
“Ay Angelita, we miss you too. Pero let me tell you, mi’ja, this looks like Time Square over here. I’ve never seen so many lights!” Carmen told her sister, astounded.
Angela looked up and around, taking in the overbearing illumination of Time Square.
“Don’t exaggerate, Carmen, I’m in Time Square right now, and there’s no way la Plaza Colón looks like this,” Angela determined, filled with nostalgia, wishing she were back in Puerto Rico, in la Plaza Colón, with her husband, her daughters and the rest of her family.
El Vagabundo de la Esquina
Gabriel sat in his corner of la Plaza Colón, his McDonald’s cup in hand, wiggling it in the direction of passersby. He’d been homeless for the past 5 years, and if there was anything that was his, it was the corner he was sitting at. The town square and the surrounding areas had been his home for the last half decade, and he didn’t remember ever seeing it so full, so bright.
“Feliz Víspera de Navidad, y bienvenidos a la plaza más alegre y más iluminada en Puerto Rico!” a man announced from the stage.
Gabriel looked up at the trees surrounding the square, at the carnival rides twirling and spinning, at the town hall dressed in bright, Christmas colors.
Contra, those are a hell of a lot of lights… he thought to himself as he felt for the fall of a nickel in his cup.
He looked down at the newspaper he was sitting on, trying to focus on the bold headline, narrowing his eyes against the glare of the Christmas lights.
"Christmas Lightings in Puerto Rico’s 78 Municipalities," it read. The newspaper was recent, it had been published a week ago.
Those are a lot of municipalities... Those are a lot of Christmas lightings… Clase e’ bill de luz! he deliberated mordantly. And everyone’s walking around saying Puerto Rico is in crisis. Hmph, I’m in crisis, he thought sardonically to himself.
He looked up at the square again, still jiggling his cup, the few nickels and dimes inside clinking and bouncing around. And for a brief moment, he managed to see beyond la plaza’s over-embellishment. Families walking hand-in-hand; lovers sitting on benches, sharing ice cream from los chinos; grandparents trying to keep up with their excited grandchildren; groups of friends snapping selfies of themselves; loners unintentionally swaying their bodies to the live music coming from the stage…
Gabriel’s brain continued processing the images and scenes taking place before his eyes, when a tall woman and her young daughter interrupted his train of thought.
“Feliz Navidad!” the little girl yelled excitedly, handing him a foam container filled with carne frita and arroz con gandules.
“Merry Christmas, señor,” the tall woman repeated, smiling at him.
Gabriel looked down at the foam container and saw food overflowing from the corners and sides. He looked back up at the woman and her daughter, staring them straight in the eyes, and smiled.
“Feliz Navidad,” he replied warmly.