Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in the Barrio

(I wrote this piece many years ago. I wanted to share it with you today. I didn't post before today because my mind was filled with all sorts of memories. My Dad, died homeless and an alcoholic on a Christmas day when I was only 5. My mother passed away eleven years ago. This is the first Christmas without our son here in town and the first Christmas our precious daughter shares her time with her own true love.
The older I get the longer it takes me to adjust to change and to view the past as a stepping stone to the present. We've all been there, this is nothing knew. I just wanted to give you a peak into who I am and why I have found it a tad difficult to post lately. May you continue to have a glorious holiday with your loved ones. Besos y abrazos.)

When Charlie, from, asked me to write an article about memories of a "Mexican Christmas" in the barrio, it started me thinking about what I actually enjoyed about the holiday as a Hispanic. My husband has always called me the Queen of Holidays, but over the course of the last few years I realized that Christmas had lost a lot of the meaning it held for me as a child growing up in the Segundo Barrio. So, this has given me an opportunity to examine where it had all changed.

As an after thought, if I were my daughter I'd be going "duh!" to myself. What was lost, but in reality just hidden deep down inside of me, was the emphasis of love and caring that we held for each other at a most glorious time of the year. These warm fuzzy feelings had been replaced with shopping, and money, and putting up more lights than our neighbors had last year ("We'll worry about the electric bill later, honey."), and "Is the tree big enough? It's by the window and everyone can see it. What'll they say if it's too small?"

The Christmas season for my brothers and me always started with the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (Unlike today where it starts with Hobby Lobby putting up Christmas displays in September.) San Ignacio Church would overflow with poinsettias and roses for our Lady. We knew once we saw Mom scotch-taping her little string of lights around her picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe (one taken out of a magazine and set in an old picture frame she had) that the holidays were near. Las Posadas would be right around the corner and that meant 9 evenings of going to San Ignacio Church to attend mass and the Posadas processions around the church's courtyard. There would be a piñata after the procession and a small, brown, paper lunch bag filled with an orange, an apple, peanuts, and maybe a few brightly colored, sweet, hard candies. How happy we were.

Then, it would be time for a Christmas tree and a couple of gifts for each of my brothers and me. I remember one particular Christmas when I was about eight or nine. Mom, being a widow, didn't quite have enough to buy a Christmas tree. She worked for the El Paso Public School system (as a head cook I'm proud to say) and she'd usually be given the tree that was put up in the school cafeteria for the students. Well, this one year, expecting the same, she hurried up with her work and went into the auditorium and the tree was gone. Someone else had already taken it. She was devastated. Growing up in the Alamito Projects meant there was never enough money to go around, so putting up a tree was always one of the more exciting moments of the holidays. She came home in tears. The days went by and my brothers and I didn't dare ask her what was going on, "Where's the tree?". Christmas Eve, one of my brothers took me by the hand and told my Mom we'd be back soon. He walked us over to Stanton Street and it felt like we had been going around and around in circles forever. Finally, we stopped at an almost deserted tree stand. My brother asked me to wait by the curbside and sauntered over to speak to a man who was obviously getting ready to close down the stand and go home to his own family. Before I knew what was happening, my brother came walking back with an incredibly huge smile on his face and the scrawniest, most lopsided, yet most beautiful tree I'd ever seen. It was a tree that would have been thrown out because no one wanted it, but it turned out to be our Christmas gift to Mom. When I remember this kind "tree-stand" man, I ask God to bless him for his generosity.

Another thing that I found missing from my childhood Christmases was Tia Cata, short for Catalina, coming in from Chihuahua to visit my grandmother Annie. She would come into town for a few days before the holiday and go shopping at Kress' department store. You could buy a bunch of really cool stuff there. Shiny, big, inexpensive things that looked great under the tree. But the best part of Tia's visit was the making of the tamales for the family. She would get up bright and early on the 23rd and start cooking the pork roast. The aromas in my grandmothers' house were amazing. See, while Tia Cata made tamales, my grandmother would be making "polvorones", known by some people as biscochos. My brothers and I would dream up every possible excuse to visit my grandmother during the day. This meant getting tamales fresh out of the steamer and polvorones so warm the cinnamon-sugar coating was dissolving as we popped them into our mouths.

These wonderful memories have helped me to see Christmas a little differently now than I did during those years of trying to get ahead and build a career. I've made a silent promise to my children that they too will have a most glorious Christmas, like the ones I had. Filled with singing and laughing, making tamales and polvorones, going and taking a poinsettia plant to La Virgen de Guadalupe on her day, experiencing Las Posadas and knowing it's true meaning. Then, on Christmas Eve, my husband and I can sit by our "little tree" having a "calientito" (hot toddy) and feel grateful that we are part of a culture that can remember how the true meaning of Christmas was and always should be celebrated. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts and feelings with you. May God bless everyone this holiday season. Feliz Navidad y un Prospero Año Nuevo.

Su amiga siempre, Tere.


JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

That was a beautiful post, Teresa. I am feeling very nostalgic for the big Italian Christmas at my grandparents. Things have just not been the same since they passed on, and the holidays were always a bit sour for me since then, but this year, now that I am newly married and starting my new life, it has been glorious again! Thanks for sharing this with us. Hope you had a wonderful holiday with your family!

Reeni said...

I'm so sorry Teresa! I know the holidays are a tough time for memories. This was a lovely post, I loved the story about your brother and the tree. Lots of HUGS♥

michelle of bleeding espresso said...

Beautiful post, indeed; even though I haven't been celebrating Christmas with my family in the States for a few years, from what I hear, the festivities now have very little to do with the Christmases I remember so fondly from my childhood anyway...passing of generations really changes so many things, so in a way, I'm not really missing anything.

Like Jenn above, I've had to adjust to making our own traditions here in Italy, and I'm enjoying Christmas more each year that I really commit to making things new, incorporating past traditions where I can...and really, truly enjoying the holidays so much more since I've begun appreciating what *is* here.

I hope you and your family are finding that nice mixture of new and old as well and, of course, enjoying your holiday season :)

ARLENE said...

Teresa, surviving my first Christmas without my mom meant I was doing a bit less blog-hopping than usual, so I just came to this post. I wondered why it had been a while since your last post. I had tears in my eyes reading your nostalgic look back. I think I've been holding my breath since Thanksgiving just wanting to get to 2009. We, too, had a quiet Christmas, filled with memories nonetheless. Thank you for a beautiful post.

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Foodycat said...

Thank you for sharing your memories, Teresa! That was very beautiful. I am sorry you didn't have your children with you this year, but I am grateful that you have sent little pieces of your enormous heart out into the world - the most generous gift we could ask for.

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