At some point in their life everyone will laugh at themselves and claim that their family is “weird” or “quirky”. This is especially true when describing holiday traditions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, since these are the times when you cram your entire extended bloodline into a house and everyone’s holiday cheer is amplified by a combination of body heat and home-made alcoholic treats such as eggnog. But my family doesn’t drink eggnog; we simply don’t have trivial “white” drinks like that. We (well, those of us above legal drinking age of course) drink coquito, a Christmas treat composed of rum, coconut, and various other island delights. This is because we’re Puerto Rican, and proud of it.
Growing up as a fair-skinned male with ginger hair in a Puerto Rican family is an experience in itself, especially at large family gatherings. In my youth, I never saw anything strange with my nationality. My family never made a big deal about the fact that I don’t share many of the physical attributes one would assign to a Latino American. My Latino culture comes from my mother’s side of the family. From the second you hear her Spanish accent with a Brooklyn twist, it’s clear she grew up in a Spanish speaking environment.
I used to spend ten to twelve days every summer visiting family on the island, and even occasionally earned myself a slight tan (a sight many people refuse to believe is possible). These trips used to be the highlight of my year, as there’s no other experience that can compare to walking across the street to your neighbor’s house and engaging in idle conversation as they allow you to pick fresh mangoes off of their tree. Even though I earned a few nicknames there such as variations of Flaco (skinny) and Rojo (red, due to the color of my hair), everyone I met in Puerto Rico has always been welcoming to me.
This warm Puerto Rican welcome has always been my favorite part about my culture, besides the food. My mother has always told me that no matter what, my family would be there to support me. And while I’m not always the most open person with them, I do firmly believe what she says. Like most families, we have our issues. That being said, I’ve seen this family support each other through some of the worst things imaginable.
My Abuelita (grandmother) is the matriarchal figure of our bloodline. Considering this family originally consisted of a single mother and six girls (one bathroom), the strong sense of female empowerment should come as no surprise. All of the family husbands refer to Abuelita as “mom” and treat her with the utmost respect someone at the tender age of eighty three deserves. Abuelita doesn’t just sit around though; in fact most of my interactions with her consist of her pouring more and more food onto my plate. Regardless of culture, grandmas are never convinced that you’re full.
Christmas in our family starts a week or two before the actual holiday. Every year we have an annual get together fittingly known as “Cooking Day”. It’s on this day that all of the women get together and prepare large amounts of food for the upcoming Christmas party. The kitchen gets pretty crowded when my mother, several of her sisters, my Abuelita, and various cousins of all types are thrown into the mix. Equipped with matching festive aprons fresh from my Titi Mery’s embroidering machine, they all work diligently all day cooking preparing pasteles (meat and green banana wrapped and cooked) and empanadas (meat stuffed into a pastry or breading). The entire house usually ends up smelling delicious, but none of the food is allowed to be consumed until Christmas.
A family tradition that even the men can enjoy would have to be the race track. Any time the family is together you can bet the TV is being occupied by my father and uncles as they bet horses and snack on somewhat stale pretzels. However, we don’t only watch from the safety of our couches. Every year, my entire family makes a pilgrimage out to Saratoga New York just in time for the Travers Stakes. We usually make a weekend of it, spending quality time at the hotel and various sites-to-see around the Saratoga area. Nothing usually gets in the way of this trip, not even my own birth. Interestingly, my first trip to Saratoga was at the delicate age of two weeks old.
Christmas itself is probably my family’s largest get together, with the Kentucky Derby being a close second. The day starts early, with family arriving as early as 7:00am. We all sit in the open living room, kitchen, and dining room and enjoy each other’s company. Instead of an organized dinner, all of the food is served buffet style with large trays and sterno food warmers. Therefore, there’s a constant opportunity to fill your plate with the Cooking Day spoils. The day usually isn’t complete without my cousins arguing over who has the best coquito recipe, and suddenly the entire kitchen is converted into a mixology lab. Christmas begins to wind down after the gift giving occurs, which usually takes the form of a secret Santa.
I remember last Christmas vividly. It always feels like a happier time around the house, with all of my mixed-paint brown walls heavily adorned in canvas/yarn Christmas decorations hand made by my Abuelita. The air was crisp, filled with the scents of cooking day spoils, freshly purchased sweets, and lightly laced with the chill of outside because some people forget that you can’t just leave the front door wide open. After a tense gender war, the TV was tuned into the Spanish “music choice” channel, much to the dismay of the men who wanted to watch horse racing. Later in the evening they would take back the TV in an act of defiance, but at that point in the night the women are too engulfed in conversation to notice the lack of background noise. Looking around at my family’s folly around this holiday, I remember feeling completely at home.
Being Puerto Rican is one of my proudest traits. Although it’s hard to believe just by looking at me, I strongly identify with every pillar of this culture. The strong-family bond I’ve observed certainly has appealing nature. Growing up surrounded by this wonderful family has had such a strong impact on my life, and I hope I can continue to experience them for the rest of my days.