Boricua Christmas in New York
I met my grandparents for the first time that terribly cold winter of 1958.
They came from the mountains of Lajas, Puerto Rico. At five, I had no idea what that meant except that they lived up high, as we did on the nineteenth floor in the towers of the Douglass projects of New York’s Harlem, right up the block from Central Park on 103rd Street.
We’d just moved into the big, bright, five-room apartment that summer from the cramped and gritty tenement train, cold water flat of the Lower East Side where I was born and where, as a child, it always seemed dark and gray.
We were moving on up. My parents arrived in New York in the late forties, during the height of “Operation Bootstrap” in Puerto Rico. U.S. Companies advertised in Spanish papers for cheap labor, especially in the garment industry.
“Don’t slave over a farm,” ads read. “Come to New York where the streets are paved in gold, and people only work from nine to five.”
My grandparents never gave up their land in the mountains. My father, however, had no interest in staying on the farm. Puerto Rico was already a “territory,” a colony really, of the U.S. After several massacres of its unarmed citizenry, an act described as dangerously close to imperialism according to New York papers, my ancestors became the war booty of the Spanish American encounter of 1898. Without discussion or vote, the Jones Act of 1917 made them American citizens, just in time for W. W. I. and the Great Depression.
Dad went from busboy at Tavern on the Green to the kitchen of the Warwick Hotel. But it still wasn’t enough to take all six of us to Puerto Rico and back for the holidays. So from Thanksgiving until Twelfth Night, the night of the Three Kings, my grandparents stayed with us in New York City.
Standing in front of our Christmas tree, my grandfather Don José seemed so tall, his skin dark against the starched white collar of his pinstriped shirt. I could feel the warmth of palm trees emanating from his smooth sun-baked skin.
“Bring me that box,” he pointed to the hallway.
I leaped from my seat to the door. I dragged the box by its rustic handle towards the couch. Picking it up and placing it on his lap, Grandpa unsnapped the leather straps at its side, slipped his hands through both loops and stretched it open. My mouth fell.
My eyes widened as I heard what sounded like life breathing asthmatically from the crinkled accordion skin.
My uncle Chiquitin (LittleGuy) pulled out a cuatro, a cute mandolin of a guitar with ten steel strings in five pairs. A Spanish guitar appeared. Two spoons placed back to back were put in my small hands while a pair of maracas rattled. Right there, in our living room after dinner, we made music. I loved Christmas. Navidad, with its music, joy, and cheer was here to share its aguinaldos, décimas, and guarachas.
You don’t have to be in Puerto Rico to enjoy our traditional Christmas. Just listening to our folk music transports the soul to the island called paradise. Here in New York, aluminum may replace banana leaves for pasteles; chicken and yuca may replace the pork filling; pine trees and sirens replace palms and coquis; projects and ghettos take the place of mountains and pueblos. But nothing replaces a típico parranda, our caroling of Christmas stories and nostalgia that has somehow managed to navigate through the internet into the hearts of the humble. I loved the music.
My mother loved music too, all kinds of music. We’d clean the house together as a team to the sound of music. Our baby brother was still in diapers, so it was up to us three girls to help mom. We’d move the furniture around to blast the dust bunnies; prepare the King Pine water for the mop, clean the sinks, the bathtub and the hallway walls we scrubbed down with brushes after we made our beds. We picked up our rooms to the fiery beat of bandleaders like Tito Puente, Machito, or Rafael Cortijo, whose music drove my mom’s miniature work line into a thunderous tribal circle of enterprise around our living room.
This went on for hours until the last ten minutes when mom unveiled the glass goblet filled with crystal clear water she had let run from the faucet. With both hands, she positioned the heavy glass in the center of the polished, newly washed floor with the warning: “Don’t drink this.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s for the bad spirits.”
“There’s good and bad spirits everywhere. They hide in corners, in clutter, meeting in secret, preparing the bad. We’re going to smoke them out with this music and this cigar. When I blow smoke into the four corners, you’re going to smack those bad spirits with this scarf. Now open the windows.”
We ran to the windows pulling my mom’s homemade lacy curtains apart, unlatching the handle that pulled the pane open into the apartment. My mother knelt to play her record.
“Who’s that pretty lady with the crown, mommy?” I pointed to the album cover.
“Why does she have a sword?”
“She’s a Warrior Queen. She fights evil.”
“And those two people next to her?”
“They’re the singers, Celina and Reutilio. They make the music for the Santos.”
Crouched, she carefully placed the needle on the groove. She spun up gracefully, her petite frame facing the furniture, adjusting the volume knob on our brand new hi-fidelity stereo cabinet.
As soon as I heard the woman sing, her voice grabbed me by the hair, pulling it back from my temples as she sang the song’s refrain:
“Que Viva Chango,
Que Viva Chango,
Que Viva Chango,
Que Viva Chango señores.”
We all bopped to the beat led by the sound of that piercing voice, singing out loud our praises to Chango, the Afro-Cuban orisha god of thunder and fire hidden behind the face of a Catholic saint and martyr whose death was avenged through the scorching blaze of lightning.
We danced around the living room until mom lit the cigar. Not missing a beat she stepped over to the first corner facing west. Inflating her cheeks as her long straight black hair gently fell around her beautiful face she blew a mouthful of translucent smoke into the corner; its essence moving into the middle of the living room towards the open window. She looked at me focusing her eyes on the red handkerchief she’d placed in my right hand. I shimmied towards the corner smacking it with the scarf. I slapped it again to speed its trip towards the water goblet. Mom was already at the edge facing south blowing smoke into the crevice that joined the institutional green walls together. As the last bit of smoke escaped mom’s lips my little sister Patria sashayed over to her, eager to smack down those bad, negative forces. Next Mom moved to the corner facing north as the music continued:
“Que Viva Chango, que viva Chango.”
I went right there with her ferreting out any resisting vapors that might later wreak havoc on us in the middle of the night. Carmen was still too young to know what we were doing so she sat on the sofa watching, her tiny three-year-old hands clapping in time to the music as we all watched over Yeyi in his little bed nearby.
The music ended. Mom stood over the glass goblet in the center of the room.
“See how cloudy the water got. Those bad spirits drowned in there. Now we’ll throw them out the window.”
“Que salga lo malo y entre lo bueno,” she said over and over again as the water poured down nineteen floors barely sprinkling the pavement below. It was a mantra I’d never forget, “out with the bad in with the good.”
We hid the records in the back of our closets before my father got home. His Pentecostal parents believed anything outside of the folk music they played at their churches belonged to the devil.
That first Thanksgiving in the projects I helped my grandma Andrea put their bags away in one of our rooms that now served as guest quarters. Their clothes smelled like the warm tropics of Puerto Rico as I helped her tuck Grandpa’s shirts into the drawers we’d cleaned out for them earlier. A tiny lady who always wore black, she knelt down by the bed to give thanks to God pulling me down to the ground on my knees next to her before we left the bedroom some twenty minutes later. She joined my mom in the kitchen.
“How do you cook pasteles without banana leaves?” she asked my mother looking concerned.
“Aluminio. That’s the future ya’ know. Aluminum foil.”
She looked at mom like she was from the moon.
She pointed to the pot of chicken stew mom had heating on the stove.
“Oh that,” Ma pointed with the tip of her nose, tilting her head in the pot’s direction. “I put chicken instead of pork into the pastel. It makes the meat pies leaner. Not so filling.”
Grandma stared in disbelief.
“Anyway,” she continued, now grabbing the ladle from my sister as she poured a spoonful of stew onto the indented pocket of the plantain batter sitting on the squared off piece of aluminum foil, “the girls get tired of pork all the time and they’re the ones who help me peel and grate all those plátanos.”
Grandma said nothing.
“ But I still use Carnation for the batter,” Mom added for assurance, as she folded the mixture over the indented niche filled with chicken stew, lifting both corners of the aluminum foil as she creased the edges along the top. She crafted the plantain dough until it settled into a hefty, metallic looking meat pie she carefully placed into the boiling stockpot of water.
Grandma turned pale when suddenly a police siren pierced the awkward silence between them.
“In Jehovah’s name, does that happen all the time?” Grandma asked covering her ears. “How do you sleep at night with all that noise? I won’t be able to sleep here without hearing the coquis.”
“You know Andrea the coquis die outside of Puerto Rico. The closest we got here are a few crickets from Central Park, but they’re not going to sing like the ones in Puerto Rico. You’ll get used to it. After a while, you can’t even hear those sirens. Besides, we’re lucky we don’t live near the trains.”
It was already hot in the kitchen; the windows fogged up as music filled the apartment from my grandfather’s accordion. Mountain folk music; nothing could replace that.
That winter my grandmother insisted we go to the Pentecostal service of her faith rather than the holier than thou, towering, gold plated, stain glassed, organ-grinding sanctuary of Holy Name, the Catholic Church we usually attended on Sundays and where we sang in Latin before they started the Spanish masses. This particular Sunday, Mom bundled us all up, Yeyi bound by blankets in my mother’s arms, before we began our short walk down the block to Our Ministry of Agonia.
The preacher talked, rather screamed, angrily during the three-hour service at the makeshift storefront church. It was more community center than spiritual safe haven.
The room was packed. I fidgeted in agony with the scratchy crinoline under my skirt as the minister ended his two-hour fire and brimstone sermon in Spanish. Teary testimonies followed when suddenly a woman bolted straight up from her pew, her face contorting as her entire body shook.
“She caught the spirit,” people shouted.
She spoke in a language I never heard. It wasn’t Latin, Spanish or English.
“Tongues,” they called it. A lengua, Mom said, they themselves didn’t understand since it was all an act for the pastor.
Sitting pin straight in the pew, I grew stiff with fear. Mom bent over and whispered, “Just look at her. That’s just shameful how she writhes on the floor showing her garters and slip to everyone. Watch. Soon it’ll be all over, and she won’t remember a thing. Humph!”
My mother wasn’t feeling this.
I wasn’t feeling it either. My fear faded. I could swear I saw that lady peeking out at everyone from the corner of her eye to make sure all the hootin’ and hollering was for her. The congregation went into prayer.
Suddenly, the slap of a bongo pierced the solemn silence sending a jolt up my spine that picked me up landing me on my feet into the center aisle. The lyrical chords of a strummed guitar vamp joined the rhythmic beats that already had my body firmly in its grip dancing towards the music, my arms waving up in the air. A güiro scratcher joined the other instruments in song.
“Mambo!” I shouted in full voice, an African word I later learned meant a conversation with the gods.
The musicians abruptly stopped playing when they saw me dancing in joyful ecstasy before them. A cold silence froze the stunned room. The preacher got back on the mike. He boomed in Spanish:
“Who said mambo in my church?”
The scene turned surreal. In seconds the entire room grew large all around me as I shrank into myself. I saw my mother run toward me in slow motion, her eyebrows furrowed in worry. I felt her tight grip as she picked me up and made a mad dash towards the exit. Whispers of “diabólica” chased us out the door.
Light snow dusted outside. Still holding me in her arms, Mom looked me straight in the eye, a half smile formed across her face. She whispered, “Never say mambo in church. That’s our secret.”
It was in the early ’70s when I again heard the stringed voice of the cuatro, but this time it was singing in popular salsa music. Our national instrument harmonized and sang with the bad boy rhythms of teenage rebels-without-a-cause Hector LaVoe and his crew of musical bandits.
Up until then, we had looked at the music from our childhood as something antiquated, for old people, “hickey.” But this new combination of young Latinos playing with one of our folkloric icons was different. A Nuyorican fusion producing a hip/hick flavor passed on from our ancestral roots through the rhythmic slaps of the cuero.
That music broke through the popular boogaloo genre and Beatles tunes that ruled inner city kids of the ’70s. It spoon-fed us abuelita’s words of wisdom while filling us with the joy of simple pleasures that some of us in New York only heard through the twang of Yomo Toro’s cuatro singing through Hector’s words.
I was a young journalist covering the Latin & r&b music scene for Billboard Magazine when I met the Maestro of Strings backstage at a Fania All-Stars concert. We became friends, like family almost, collaborating until his passing in 2012. During his last ten years he regularly performed with the musical group I put together, Zon del Barrio recording his last tune with us but giving us his blessing to continue the music, the mix of jíbaro with urban he loved so much.
“There was no paper (written music) at that session,” recalled the master guitarist Toro of his second 1971 Fania recording. “They didn’t even expect me. I was subbing for another guitarist, Roberto García who told me Willie Colón wanted an electric guitar for a Christmas album. They were recording in the same studio where I did the Arsenio album with Larry Harlow the year before. But when I heard Christmas, naturally I grabbed my cuatro.
Pacheco laughed when he saw me. He asked if I was recording with the jíbaro group next door. I told him I was there to do the Navidad album. When I started tuning up, Hector got up, excitedly intoning Ramito, Chuito, and Maelo. Professor Joe at the piano started playing some chords, the percussion joined in, and in a few hours the heart of “Asalto Navideño” was born.”
Fania followed this smash hit album with a Vol. II featuring the rustic voice of Puerto Rico’s iconic Daniel Santos joining Hector LaVoe and Yomo complete with arrangements from some of the best in the business. In the nineties, Ashe Records also produced a stunning Celebremos Navidad featuring Yomo and a star-studded array of musicians and arrangers from Puerto Rico to New York. None reached the fiery heights of popularity or sales as that original Asalto Navideño. Yomo and Hector caught lightning in a bottle that first time in Manhattan.
The album presented Puerto Rico’s national instrument to a new generation of Nuyoricans, taking the cuatro around the world in popularity when Yomo joined the Fania All-Stars. For an instrument introduced by Iberian Moors in Spain, it developed its full potential in sound in Puerto Rico growing from four to five double strings, only to find its worldwide spotlight on the streets of New York.
The blending of Spanish décimas (ten-line stanzas), African percussion and rhythms and Indian güiros and maracas paralleled the fusion of the races on the Island of Puerto Rico, bringing forth plenas, bombas, and aguinaldos. These songs were the first lyrical expression of Puerto Rican culture stamped with an indelible Boricua seal. Rich in themes, celebratory in spirit, these tunes and dances express the folk wisdom of the jibaro through refrains, legends, superstitions, customs, and traditions.
The root lies in the “aguinaldo” (a literal gift); a poetic song form founded in Spanish couplets. A descendant of the Spanish Christmas carol, villancico, the troubadour leads the chorus in a spirited call and response.
Simultaneously nostalgic and joyous, festive and melancholy, tragic and euphoric, aguinaldos join the flesh with the spirit in a rhythm that at times can be so complicated it takes a dedicated musical troubadour to sing it correctly. The words can be religious yet irreverent, often innocently erotic; they can be political with sharp social commentary while the music is as festive as the spirit of the season.
From mid-December until eight days past the twelfth night after Christmas, las octavitas where groups of musicians and singers hold trullas (also called parrandas or in New York, asaltos or jolopes — hold-ups of course) continue the holiday celebration. It is, in essence, an improvised, mobile party with the trappings of a carnival making the rounds from home to home singing, dancing, asking for gifts on Christmas Eve and the Epiphany, the day of gift-giving throughout Latin America. January 6, the day of the Kings.
I remember the Kings, Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchor; the Spanish King, the African King and the wise old Asian King who somehow managed to come to New York’s El Barrio on camels leaving presents under our beds. My mother would have us gather dry grass, even if we had to dig under snow, put it in a shoebox along with a glass of water for the King’s camels.
“How can camels come here through the window?” I asked her.
“If you believe a big, fat white man comes through the window with reindeer, you can believe in the Three Magi Kings.”
Gifts of candies, crafts, and trinkets replaced our simple offerings with stories of the three ages and races of the Kings accompanied by the music that brought poetry, values, and history to our hearts. The lyric melodies of the cuatro always seemed to be there, subtle, unassuming, like a best friend, sharing our parent’s nostalgia and melancholy while fueling our revelry of song.
We sang and danced after dinner throughout those Christmas nights taking our parranda caroling in front of the neighbor’s doors. We went down the project stairs until we reached the last apartment on the last floor where we’d play until, like our ancestors, we dropped from exhaustion waking up on a pile of winter coats on a strange bed.
Salsa, jazz, folkloric, Christmas or jíbaro “roots” music; seasonal or all year round, the music of our folklore as expressed through the cuatro is an expression of the heart of Puerto Rico played with the gallantry and excitement that intricately weaves the cultural mosaic of the Puerto Rican “race.” It is the heirloom we leave to the future in the hope that they can keep the innocence of our humanity alive.
With every parranda, we pass the torch of three races wrapped in the richness of three cultures, to a new world of children.
We bequeath the trilogy of old world values ensconced in the symbols of the Kings’ gifts: gold, a tribute to our inherent royalty, frankincense, a keepsake of our spirituality and myrrh, a bitter reminder of our humanity.
Our folk music embraces these living emblems of our existence, bringing joy to our lives. Growing up in New York I was blessed not only with our own Puerto Rican country music but also with the music of Cuba, the Dominican Republic all mixed in with the American music of Nat King Cole singing “Merry Christmas” to us every year.
All this music takes me to where I came from. It helps me understand the traditions of my grandparents. It gives me the strong foundation that helped me survive the temptations of the ’70s, the confusion of the ’80s, the greed of the ’90s and the chaos and trauma that has become this millennium.
No matter where I was born or what language I speak, I am Boricua, an urban jíbara, a Puerto Rican in New York.