Published On: Wed, Dec 17th, 2008

A Very Upwardly Mobile Nuyorican Christmas

Photo%202 Saludos, Saludos

Vengo a saludar…


As much as I despise Thanksgiving for historical reasons, growing up it always marked the beginning of the Christmas season in my multiple families and coño do I love navidad. As a Queens Nuyorican born to upwardly mobile island born parents who arrived in the 1950's, the ushering in of the navidad holidays was the exemplification of that melting pot asopao that is assimilation and the struggle to hold on to isla roots.


One year, my father, suddenly started taking French cooking lessons, so for Thanksgiving he made a turkey, complete with some fancy ass cranberry orange relish, not sauce out of a can. My stepmother put up the christmas trees complete with baroque styled angels to rival those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the background music rotated from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker to Bing Crosby. Nothing, save the occasional “coño!” from the kitchen when my dad cut himself, would give away that there be Ricans in this house. It was more Curier and Ives than  Calle 13. Pero, after the bird was carved and the wine was poured, out came the guitars, pandaretas,  guiros and palos and every damn aguinaldo or Rican Christmas carol we could think of complete with my father improvising lines about the Three Kings losing their underwear.


Ay Doña Maria

Ay Compai José


And so was Navidad en Nueva York, White Christmas to Plena beats. My mother, who worked (and still works) in retail would keep late hours but between my father and her, my sister, stepsister, and I managed to experience all that represents Navidad in the big mango. One night was dedicated to walking down Fifth Avenue in the freezing cold to see all the department store window displays culminating with a visit to the only Santa to this day I recognize as the only legitimate one, the one at Macy's on 34th Street. Another evening was dedicated to seeing George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center where every year till I was 17, I was given a new ornament related to the ballet. After the ballet we would all go to Little Italy and eat pasteries at Ferrara's and make fun of my step-primo Sergio, who would order with the only jibaro accent a baba au rhum. One morning we would ice skate and have breakfast with a fake Santa under the tree at Rockefeller Center.


Abreme la puerta…


Since I came from a “broken” home. I spent Christmas Eve with my father where suddenly the pernil and coquito would come out and salsa navideña sung by the Fania All Stars would be in heavy rotation.

Someone would drink too much and there would be an argument. Finally , his started to feel a little more stereotypical and continued to feel so the next day at my maternal abuela's house where Christmas Day was spent. There all my primos and their six kids each (ok only one has six kids), would show up and drop off their gifts by the front door of Abuela Lucia's and Papi's Jamaica, Queens apartment. Before you knew it the gift pile nearly reached the ceiling and the apartment was hot and crowded and loud with tios, tias, primos, nietos and then some. There was never a Christmas tree in abuela's house and no one seemed to mind. We just wanted to eat our pasteles quick so we could open the gifts which were always given out by my Tio Roberto who would yell each kid's name so we could run up and get our gifts. It was my poor Tio Bienvenido's job to drive everyone home afterwards, since he was the only one that had a car. All the primos would pile into the station wagon finding a space among the bags and bags of presents. People were sitting on people's lap and on the laps of people sitting on people's laps. I was always in the trunk of the car with my favorite primo Edgar whom I swore I would marry until I learned that was illegal.


Si no me dan de beber lloro…


Pero Christmas isn't over on the 25th, and so on the 26th, at the asscrack of dawn, my father would take my sister and I to Puerto Rico to continue the party with familia over there. To this day flights to Puerto Rico are the only ones that end with people breaking out into applause when the wheels land on the runway. I'm still not sure if this is because they are grateful that they arrived alive or if it's because they are home.


While I never lived in Puerto Rico beyond Navidad holidays and summer vacations, the humid air that hits your face when you exit Muñoz Marin airport always felt like home, especially with the welcoming party of extended family that would greet us. Navidad in Puerto Rico was a whirlwind of family visits and always accepting offers of alcapurias no matter how full you were. My paternal abuela Lila would shed her Evangelical Pentecostal ways and take my sister and I to see the Three Kings at Plaza las Americas. I would spend hours adjusting to Rican time, with family promising that ahorita we would go to the beach, not understanding that ahorita could mean anywhere from 15 minutes to five hours. I would eat empanadillas at Plaza Aquatica like no one's business and pose for pictures with a homeless borracho wearing fur Santa shorts in la Plaza Colon in Viejo San Juan. The parrandas we used to improvise in our living room hit the streets and I would walk up and down all the colonial cobblestone streets singing.


Dame la mano paloma, para subir a tu nido…


I don't ever remember being made fun of because I was a Nuyorican or because I spoke less than perfect spanish. What I do remember is dressing up for the series of family parties where a huge lechon was always the centerpiece and how I always liked to pick the crispy skin off the ears and dance a sloppy ass salsa while wearing a pava.


I remember New Year's parties where we would celebrate the new year not once, but twice. Once in Puerto Rico time and again in New York Time. For about half of those New Year's without fail, the electricity would go out.

“Se fue la luz! ”  we would all yell in familiar coro and then we would all struggle under candlelight to see when watches hit exactly midnight so we could say Feliz Año Nuevo.


Then we were warned not to go outside because the caserillo de Lloren Torres liked to celebrate with bullets that I can't ever remember hearing pero maybe that's because my family was louder.


We knew navidad was ending when we were ordered to go and get grass for the camels of the Three Kings, who gave this Nuyorican a leg up over her gringo friends back home, after all , I got gifts twice. Mind you the gifts that the Three Kings left under our beds were never as good as the ones New York Santa left. My abuela Lila's Three Kings were the worse. Her Reyes would always give us socks or cheesy panties with Garfield saying “Great Balls of Fire” or something equally inappropriate. Pero gifts were gifts and parties were parties with more good food, including turron alicante made purposely to keep dentists in business.


The day after Reyes, we would return to New York, with tears in our eyes, because we didn't want to leave the pool, the beach or the tamarindo piraguas behind. Pero, we had missed a week of school already and to the cold we always returned.


Estas navidades van a ser candela…


As an adult single Nuyorican mami, I don't have the resources to take my two daughters to see the Nutcracker every year, much less to travel back to la isla. Pero I bundle them up to see all the New York store windows. We see the tree at Rockefeller Center and skate in Wollman Rink. We have hot chocolate at Dylan's Candy bar and watch the Nutcracker on TV.  Pero, I also cook the pernil, pull out the panderetas and sing in between sips of coquito, and celebrate New Year's twice, once on Puerto Rico time, once on New York time. Meanwhile I continue my never ending search for a patch of grass in cold New York City so that my kids can feed the camels. At least the lights won't go out.


About the author:

Maegan "la Mamita Mala" Ortiz

Photo%202.jpg Maegan is a Queens born and bred Nuyorican mami, Espanglish poeta, freelance writer, blogger, and all around rabble rouser.

La Mala has traveled between Puerto Rico and New York City her entire life, stopping for a brief time to live in Chile. She's spent many years working on grassroots activist campaigns around such issues as police brutality, racial violence, and radical mamihood.

Her words and opinions have been featured in the Washington Post, Latina Magazine, The New York Daily News, and National Public Radio.

When she's not blogging here, she's shamelessly exhibiting herself on her personal blog Mamita Mala, writing for magazines/websites, working on a book or two, and spitting poesia in clubs in NYC, dragging her daughters behind her.

Maegan's photos on Flickr







A Very Upwardly Mobile Nuyorican Christmas