This post is an annual tradition here at the [un]Common Sense blog…
During the 60s & 70s a Puerto Rican identity movement1 encompassing music, literature, and the arts in general was born. Salsa wasn’t merely a musical genre, it was, in the words of Panamanian Salsa musician/ activist, Ruben Blades, an “urban folklore” that ignited throughout barrios all over the world (and in far off places such as Australia, Japan, and Germany, for example). The term “Salsa!” was layered with meaning and was the Latinx equivalent of the African-American “Right on!”
Young Latinx, mostly New Yorkers of Puerto Rican of the Puerto Rican diaspora, instead of breaking away from their roots in rebellion, embraced them and built a movement on that foundation. Instead of feeling shame for who we were and where we came from (as we were taught in schools and by the dominant culture), we took the multi-layered cultural and physical manifestations of what it meant to be a Puerto Rican and used that nexus as a rallying point for cultural pride.
One of the most popular albums at the time, was Willie Colon’s reinterpretation of traditional Puerto Rican holiday music, Asalto Navidad, and the cover featured Willie Colon and his famous lead singer, Hector Lavoe, stealing from a Christmas tree (yes PRs have a sense of humor). Any PR worth his salt had a copy of this album and it was played during the holidays for decades later. Every time I hear this music, I am filled (as I’m sure many from the Puerto Rican diaspora are) with the holiday spirit. It was a time of little in terms of material possessions but rich in the things that matter most: family, friendship, and community.
The following is a story from that time…
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
— Albert Camus
It was a time of change and turmoil: the Vietnam War raged and it seemed as if all the institutions we took for granted — marriage and gender roles, civil rights, the meaning of freedom — were being challenged and re-envisioned. The strategies used by African-Americans and Latinx in the struggle for human rights were being co-opted by a wide range of groups: women and the burgeoning LGBTQ movement were marching for their rights, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was forming, and states of consciousness were being explored. In short, it was a time of change and the times were a’changin’.
It was a year I would never forget. I was about sixteen, in the process of reading every “great book” ever written, helping put out an underground newspaper. My siblings and I were young and full of life. We had many friends and our home was the center of activities for our vast network of friends and family.
This particular year, however, was a difficult one for my family: our stepfather was arrested on a trumped up charge after a scuffle with the police and sentenced to a year in jail (police brutality ain’t new, folks). He was our breadwinner and that meant that our main source of income was gone. Compounding our financial difficulties was our mother’s pregnancy, she would eventually give birth to our youngest brother the following June.
As the oldest child, I had always felt a deep and conflicted sense of protection toward my mother and siblings. I had to grow up fast because it was expected of me to be more than a big brother; I had to be a power of example for my younger siblings. To be honest, I resented that responsibility. But a part of me felt I should be doing something to contribute and it was frustrating. What disturbed me the most, however, was when I caught my mother crying. Though I sometimes resented having to be the adult in my interactions with her, my mother was nevertheless a strong woman who managed to make her place in a world that was both hostile and violent towards her. If she was despairing, I surmised, that meant things were really screwed up.
My sisters helped by working at a local supermarket after school. For a time, I worked delivering groceries and my sisters staffed the cash registers. Of course, me being the radical of the clan, I was promptly fired for calling the Puerto Rican owner an Uncle Tom and an oppressor of his own people. I mean, c’mon, he was selling cheap outdated meats (changing the dates) and overcharging mostly working poor Puerto Ricans and Blacks.
While we never starved, we grew up knowing too well the meaning of food insecurity and wish sandwiches. My mother shopped daily because we couldn’t afford groceries for the week. Sometimes we would get our groceries because my sisters would not charge up the register on the down low when my mother shopped. Things became worse at the onset of the holidays. We called a family meeting and we all agreed that, with the exception of our youngest brother, we would forego gifts for Christmas. My mother didn’t take this too well and it pushed her to her dark side, sending her toward bouts of sadness interspersed with rage. A condition that Nuyoricans often called ataques de nervios (nervous attacks).
We made do just as many other poor families in distress coped at that time: Many worked at low-paying factory jobs or for slave wages in the garment center. Others went on “welfare” and augmented that small and humiliating pittance by small-scale attempts at entrepreneurship. Sometimes my mother would buy a bottle of rum, or some other item, and raffle it off at the Bingo parlor: if everyone paid in a dollar, she would be able to earn a profit and offer a prize. We also had an extended family and they would help as best they could, though they too were often financially extended and living from paycheck to paycheck.
In short it was getting to be a sad holiday season. The house became less full, as our situation served as a basis for shame and, as we gradually dropped off our activities with our friends, the ensuing quiet was disturbing. Then one day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we took out the old artificial tree. We all share a warped sense of humor and my sisters and I started joking about how “lonely” the tree would look without any gifts. Soon we were cracking each other up, trying to outdo each other by coming up with the most twisted reason why we should, or shouldn’t, put up the Christmas tree.
In the end, we decided to put it up and, and while playing traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs, we slowly got into the spirit of things. Soon enough, the house rang out with laughter and song and friends were called up to come and help. I don’t know if my perception is clouded by bias or the passage of time, but I swear that old tree never looked so beautiful. We really put our creative energies into fixing up the house too: we gift wrapped doors, put up mistletoe, strung lights on the windows — we created the best display on that block in Brooklyn’s Bushwick section.
Still, the tree did look lonely — or rather, bare — without gifts. So someone, one of my sisters I think, came up with the idea of collecting empty boxes and wrapping them up as gifts. Of course, as was usual in our household, we took the sentiment to an extreme. Our rather large artificial tree was soon dwarfed by a mountain of elegantly wrapped “gifts.” My sisters went as far as researching Christmas gift wrapping and the wrapped boxes became little works of art. People would visit and comment on how “beautiful” the tree looked and we would laugh because we knew they were only saying that in part because of the many “gifts.” It was our own little private joke.
I have to admit that while our circumstances were extremely difficult that year, I can’t remember a more joyful holiday season. Soon our apartment sang once again with the sound of young people and friends and family. And the tree seemed to take on a life of its own, to radiate joy, it attracted people, and it was true that many people would come and visit. I guess maybe everyone else was having a hard time and the joy in our house was sort of like a warm fire to ward off the chill of winter in the Land of the Snow. The tree became almost like another family member that we tended to and nurtured. People would visit and you could tell immediately that the joy was infectious. The “joke” was a constant source for new comedic material and we would create even more elaborate “gifts” to put at the base of that tree.
Nuyoricans celebrate Christmas Eve — Noche Buena. Christmas day is for the children and for the adults to nurse hangovers. That year, a huge Christmas Eve party, attended by everybody-and-their-mother, capped that holiday season. Unbeknownst to him, the owner of the supermarket where my sisters worked contributed the ingredients so that my mother could make her famous pasteles1 (a Puerto Rican mashed plantain/ meat dish) and pernil (pork shoulder). All our friends and family attended and the party lasted well into Christmas morning. I don’t think it snowed that Christmas, but I remember that the party became the basis for several legends — a story time delight to be recounted for years to come. It became a marker for community events as in BC and AD: Before and After “The Christmas Party.”
The party itself was rambunctious — more rambunctious than normal. I believe that the reason why poor people are adept at partying is because they know all too intimately the vicissitudes of life and whenever the opportunity arises, they party with an almost religious fervor. Of course, there was plenty of drama that Christmas Eve. Old jealousies and rivalries were re-ignited, people were caught in compromising situations, and quite a few made fools of themselves. There was my stepfather’s aunt, who insisted on flashing her undergarments at everyone and poor old Fito who would never live down the fact that he got so drunk he pissed on himself. I mean, he just slid down the wall and pissed on himself, and laughed his ass off while doing it. Really. I thought my mother was going to stomp him, but luckily a timely intervention of family and friends saved his life.
The party was a microcosm of the full catastrophe of the human condition in all its shining glory. In other words — a good time was had by all.
Finally, Christmas day came, and it was time to clean up the house and dispose of all the “gifts.” I started collecting the empty boxes to throw them out, but mother stopped me. “You can’t throw out the boxes!” she yelled out, an alarming note of hysteria in her voice. We looked at one another, fearing our mother was about to have another ataque de nervios, but then we saw her smile.
We had to tear through all the empty boxes in order to find the real gifts my mother had hidden into that huge pile. I will never forget my gift that year though I have had many materially richer Christmases since: it was a digital watch with an LED readout that was fairly new and trendy at the time. I know it didn’t cost much, maybe $5, but I treasured it and wore that watch for a long time.
Why share this story?
For one, the experience taught me a lesson that was the greatest Christmas gift of all: that you always have a choice with how to respond to adversity. Yes, the fact remained that we sometimes were hungry and our clothes weren’t the best. There were times we couldn’t afford basic needs or even school supplies. But we learned to face these hardships with humor and strength of character. That year could easily have been much worse, but facing our hardships in a realistic but joyful way — that lesson would stay with me for the rest of my life. For me, this is the taste of life itself. The One Taste.
So, if you ever catch me smiling, try to remember where that smile comes from. It comes from the knowledge that material gifts are essentially empty. I smile because I know the pretty boxes are empty but my heart is full…
Happy Holidays! Y que vive Puerto Rico libre!
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
Some excellent books on Puerto Rican identity and the arts:
Aparicio, F. R. (1998). Listening to salsa: Gender, Latin popular music, and Puerto Rican cultures. Fredericksburg, PA: Wesleyan University Press.
Berrios-Miranda, M. (2013). Is salsa a musical genre? In L. Waxer (Ed.), Situating salsa: Global markets and local meanings in Latin popular music (pp. 23-38). New York: Taylor & Francis.
Rondón, C. M. (2008). The book of salsa: A chronicle of urban music from the Caribbean to New York City (F. R. Aparicio & J. White, Trans.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Algarin, M. (Ed.) (1994). Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- For excellent and alternative, healthier (including vegan and vegetarian options) Puerto Rican recipes, check out Erisbelia (Eris) Garriga’s books. She offers some really great and delicious recipes [LINK]