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Latinx Files: Our best Nochebuena stories

illustrations of lechon, a christmas tree, gifts, tamales and fireworks
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

My paternal grandmother’s tamales are just OK.

I know it’s sacrilege for a Mexican American to say that his abuelita’s tamales are anything short of amazing, that they were crafted with love and wisdom that makes them worthy of the Aztec gods, but it’s the truth. Some years, they’ve been a little dry.

But if she asks me how I like them, I will straight-up lie to her face every time and say they’re amazing. Four generations gather under her roof each year, and in preparation for that desmadre, my grandmother does a tamaleada where hundreds of tamales are prepared. I feel incredibly fortunate that my family has this tradition, and the last thing I’d want to do is undermine it by giving my opinion. I’m not a total monster.

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I bring this up because it reminds me of one of my favorite Nochebuena memories.

It happened in the mid-aughts when I was still in college. I must have been drunk, hungry or both because I unwrapped a sweet tamal (she makes hers with sugar and raisins), devoured it and immediately proceeded to tell her that this was the best tamal I had ever eaten, and that the sweet ones were my favorites. I said it with such conviction that she believed it. I believed it. (Yeah, I was definitely drunk.)

From that moment on, she has made it a point to make extra dozens of sweet tamales for Nochebuena just for me to take back to whichever part of the country I’m living in at that particular moment. No one else is allowed to touch them. I remember one year I flew back to college with a trash bag full of sweet tamales, much to the delight of all my friends who devoured them and quickly declared that they had never had anything more delicious. Yes, they are white.

Like most things in 2020, Nochebuena during the pandemic won’t be the same. I won’t have the opportunity to sit at her table, take a bite and tell her how amazing the tamal is, and watch her face light up. I’m hoping we get to partake in this little ritual next year.

Today’s newsletter is devoted entirely to Nochebuena stories from our readers, friends and colleagues. These run the gamut in length and focus, but it has been a true delight reading them. Whatever your particular situation for today’s family-oriented holiday might be, we hope they bring you comfort, company and joy.

Your best Nochebuena stories

Alex Fumero of Miami writes: When I was about 5 years old my grandfather called me into the kitchen as the family was getting ready for Nochebuena. He said, “Alejandrito, a ti te gusta el lechón?” I must’ve been a Cuban roast pork lover at that age because I remember saying yes. He bent down and picked me up so my face was even with the raised oven we had in our apartment, and through the glass I could see an entire pig splayed out, head and all. He said, “Esto es lechón,” and smiled self-satisfyingly. I don’t remember what happened next except that I still ate it.

Rachel Pineda of Mercedes, Texas: We used to go Christmas caroling door to door on Christmas Eve. All the neighborhood kids would practice for several weeks. We would string bells to ribbons to shake during “Jingle Bells,” and our last song as we’d go to the next house was always “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” When we were all done, we would go to one of our houses and have pan dulce and Mexican hot chocolate before going home and getting ready for midnight Mass. It was absolutely the best. I still remember the songs.

Christmas
(Jade Cuevas/Los Angeles Times)

Alex Zaragoza of Tijuana: Nochebuena at the Zaragozas’ is a legendary type of chaos. Knowing I’ll be in my cold Brooklyn apartment instead of on the West Coast with my family going absolutely wild breaks my heart. Christmas Eve with my family means a few things:

1. Endless tequila shots. That includes my mom, who doesn’t drink except on special occasions, where she downs half a bottle of Don Julio and then gets too rough with everyone.

2. Wrestling on the ground for candy from the multiple piñatas we’ve busted, mainly because we hide cash inside some of the treats. It’s a literal pile of humans between the ages of 7 to 69 fighting for a box of Milk Duds that might have a single dollar bill in it. I’ve had my niece in a headlock even though I earn a salary. I usually end up giving whatever dollars I get to one of the kids, but that’s not the point.

3. Singing at the dinner table. Without fail we’re all scream-singing to “Costumbres” by Rocio Durcal, “Querida” by Juan Gabriel, and basically anything else that plays on Radio Latina in between sips of wine or chomps of pork loin. Sometimes there’s tears, especially once “Amor Eterno” comes on, bringing on an emotional avalanche that can only be cured/exacerbated by more drinking and, inevitably...

4. Dancing. Banda, mariachi, freestyle, rap, R&B — all genres end up present as we drink and dance in the living room. Nothing like dancing to Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” as your brother-in-law puts your 4-year-old niece on top of the fridge and we all chant for her to jump, which she does while giggling nervously.

5. Gambling. Aside from Loteria, we all bring extra gifts and dollar bills to play dice. Everyone is screaming and grabbing gifts if they roll a four or a six.

6. Getting injured. Somebody always gets hurt. It’s inevitable. Two years ago, I ended up in a makeshift neck brace unable to move for two days because my niece Brianna pushed me off her bed and I landed on my neck. She got her comeuppance the following year though, when her fingernail got ripped almost all the way off by my sister on accident.

There’s more, but no need to give away all our secrets. If this sounds like a nightmare, well, maybe it is. But it’s our nightmare, and we love it. I’m never happier, and knowing that I won’t be there this year to rinse blood off my niece’s nail-less finger or sing Rocio Durcal while feasting on tamales is a heartbreak I haven’t fully processed. Here’s hoping next year I can be back in the chaos.

Lechon
(Jade Cuevas/Los Angeles Times)

Lulu Rodriguez from Miami: It’s 1964. Papi, who had been a police officer, had lived in the heart of Havana and had never killed an animal in his entire life, decided that he felt nostalgic for a real Cuban Nochebuena and bought a live pig so they could kill it the day before the 24th and marinate it overnight.

We lived on SW 17th Avenue and 3rd Street — what is now Little Havana. He invited a few friends to come and have some beers and help him kill the beast. But the poor little black pig ran away when they opened the cage and they had to run after him and ended up stabbing him in the middle of the street while he screamed the most horrendous sounds I had ever heard. All the Anglo neighbors were horrified and called the police. No one spoke English in the family except the kids — we were between 10 and 14 years old. We had to explain to the cops — while we threw buckets of water in the street to wipe away the blood — that we were exiles and my father, who was a police officer in Cuba, was very sad that we had lost our country to communism, and we were cooking a pig to honor our traditions in the name of Jesus.

I do remember one of the police officers rolling his eyes but we got away with a couple of fines for keeping a farm animal in the city and excessive noise. The fines cost more than the pig. But Papi was happy that we could feel like we were still living in Cuba.

Lourdes Reynolds from Tarzana, Calif.: It’s Nochebuena and a truly magical night in rural eastern Montana circa 2001. My husband is at the hockey rink with our four young children — they have the place to themselves — and I’m at home alone attempting to make tamales from scratch. I couldn’t be happier and more at peace. All is good. It then dawns on me that it’s very possible that at that particular moment in time I could be the only person in Montana making tamales while listening and singing along to James Taylor — the uniqueness of my life experiences coming together in that holiest of nights is seared in my memory. Jalisco, the Valley, Mexicali and Montana all blending together to make that moment happen. The tamales turned out so-so but the memory is priceless! Feliz Navidad y esperemos un próximo Año Nuevo con muchos más momentos de magia!

Tamales
(Jade Cuevas/Los Angeles Times)

Roberto José Andrade Franco of El Paso: We’ve always celebrated Nochebuena in Juárez, at my paternal grandmother’s house. Everyone would gather there; cousins, neighbors, friends, and even people you didn’t necessarily want there.

This particular Nochebuena memory happened in 1995. At one point during the night, my cousin ran inside yelling in Spanish that someone had smashed our windshield. We all ran outside. Immediately, my dad said he knew who did it. He had been outside an hour before and saw that a couple of guys from the block were breaking bottles. He told them to stop. When they didn’t, they exchanged words and eventually got in a fistfight. My dad knocked one of them out, told them to stop breaking bottles, then came back inside. He then began to describe him and almost immediately everybody knew who it was. It was my cousin’s friend.

Immediately after, about 10 people — myself, cousins, uncles, my dad — head out, getting hyped while walking to that guy’s house. I’m feeling nervous with butterflies in my stomach. We get there quietly, and my cousin knocks. The guy cracks the door and everyone just runs inside. It looked like the three people inside were ready to go to bed. It was like a cartoon brawl. Punches and kicks everywhere. One of them ran out and escaped in nothing but his underwear. We all had that winter weight on, so no one caught him. Eventually, it just ended.

Back at grandmother’s house, everyone’s singing, and dancing, and drinking. I’m about 14 or 15 at the time, and I’m traumatized. I can’t just go back to eating tamales and barbacoa like nothing happened. The party eventually ends and everyone falls asleep wherever there’s room on the floor. I can’t. I’m still worried. I’m thinking these guys are going to come back. I didn’t sleep that night at all.

The next morning, the phone rings. It’s for my cousin, and it’s the guy who got beat up. He says he says he deserved what he got for breaking the windshield, but that it wasn’t cool of us to rob him. My cousin, like all of us, is confused. “What do you mean steal from you?” he asks. “That wasn’t us.”

The guy is adamant that some of his stuff is missing, so my cousin calls around to find out what happened. It turns out that in the middle of the brawl, someone else who was at our party and tagged along with the mob began to pocket things. My cousin tells him he needs to return everything. He agrees. The next thing I know, the guy who got beat up comes to my grandmother’s house to get whatever was stolen from him. The thief shows up with a 19-inch TV, wallets, and about a dozen CDs. It all got settled. That was the wildest Nochebuena I remember.

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Albert Perez of Los Angeles: In 1987, after several months of pleading for my parents to buy me a Nintendo Action set, they budged and bought me one for Christmas. They soon regretted it. The Nintendo system was quickly demonized because it supposedly made you “flojo” or a “menso.” My parents decided they were never going to buy me anything video game-related, and they kept their word. I must have played Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers like a million times while everyone else was enjoying Super Mario 2.

It’s Christmas 1990, and Super Mario 3 is the greatest thing since New Coke! My parents were still very much on their anti-Nintendo crusade. On Nochebuena, the coolest thing I got was a color-changing hoodie, while my cousins got a trove of Nintendo stuff, including that game. I just broke down and cried like an 8-year-old baby. My aunt saw, and to get me to stop crying she told me to pick a game from the bundle. There’s no question about which one I grabbed! That has to me the fondest Nochebuena memory, crying my way to playing with Tanooki Mario!

Angel Rodriguez (who edits this newsletter): Growing up in Houston in the ‘80s as a Cuban American kid made you the oddball of your Latino friends, who mostly consisted of Mexicans or Central Americans. As a result, you ended up incorporating their slang, a love of cheesy pop music like Timberiche or Flans, and the late night taco runs to places like Taqueria Arandas. It wasn’t the typical Cuban American upbringing compared to places like Miami or Union City, N.J.

But there was one thing that made me feel as Cuban as Celia, and that was Nochebuena. My family always went all out on Nochebuena. My dad and uncles would always get a whole pig to roast on Christmas Eve. It was common for me to come home from college on winter break and see that a whole pig was dangling on a hook inside the garage. A hole would be dug in the backyard and the pig would be placed over charcoal on a grill grate covered by some palm fronds from the tree in the front yard. The men would be out there at 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve with their whiskey to keep warm and water jugs filled with mojo. Inside my mom and aunts would be making the rice, black beans, yucca, platanitos and the flan.

By sundown the pig would be brought into the house, and everyone would circle my uncle who would be breaking the pig down. Everyone would pick at the meat or the skin as the platters filled up with juicy lechón. We’d be eating that pork in sandwiches and medianoches for a full week.

While the food was delicious, for me Nochebuena was about connecting to my culture and finding a place of belonging in a world where you weren’t like everyone else.

Eric Warren of Tulsa, Okla.: Thirty years ago I married a wonderful Guatemateca and my white butt became, if nothing else, honorary Latinx. Perhaps the most memorable Nochebuena took place in Glendale, Calif., in like 1992, at her sister’s small Spanish Colonial Revival house at the top of one of those twisty drives. Like all of our family parties, there was kind of a “rolling arrival time,” which the first few times put my nose a bit out of joint, but I learned to adapt and love it. The food was marvelous, the festiveness more so, and the sense of community was something I had never really experienced in my small, white atomic family growing up. I later learned that the relaxed arrival time was because they celebrated Christmas at midnight. This so completely subverted what I had learned growing up, and it was so joyous and spontaneous — and messy — that it really added significantly to my life experience.

We divorced but remained friends and did the two-family mambo: My girls would spend the days leading up to Christmas with me and my family, drive to wherever their mom’s family were spending Nochebuena, and then drive back to us the next morning to celebrate with us. I think, despite all of the driving, this dual Christmas was fun for them.

Elliott Turner from Houston: I lived in Managua, Nicaragua, for several years near the end of the last decade with my wife and two kids, then toddlers. The Virgin of Guadalupe and posadas weren’t a big deal there but they did celebrate an event called La Purisima, where families agree to host a religious image that goes from house to house and swarms of kids sing songs and are given gifts, often candy. It was a really cool fusion of what in the U.S. we know as Christmas caroling and Halloween.

For Nochebuena, everybody gives or gets gifted a super nice outfit. Not necessarily a suit and jacket, but a very nice sweater and khakis and you got to bolear those black dress shoes. After a very late dinner around 11ish, most people will take to the streets en masse to greet and exchange pleasantries with their neighbors. Right at the stroke of midnight, the fireworks go off. It’s basically the Fourth of July but with a VIP nightclub dress code.

The best thing on the Latinternet this week: Los Bukis and the Spanglish ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’

Normally, we end the newsletter with a bit of recent viral content, but given that it’s Nochebuena, we’re going old school with it. Two times! The first is this Spanglish version of the classic “Twas the Night Before Christmas”; its author is unknown.

The second is “Navidad Sin Ti,” the saddest Christmas song we know. For many, including LAist’s Erick Galindo, who wrote about it, this tune by Marco Antonio Solis y Los Bukis is a key part of the holiday season. Sadness and all.


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