Celebrating Christmas and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
Before hurricane season, before multiple stress-induced illnesses, I had planned to save up as much money as humanly possible and convince my parents to spend Christmas in Puerto Rico with my father’s side of the family. Next, I wanted to head to the Dominican Republic to see my mother’s side of the family for New Year’s Eve.
The holiday season in the Caribbean starts earlier than it does in the United States, and it ends a week later thanks to Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day. We don’t celebrate the Christmas season with family here in the States the way we used to, so the holidays have become painfully lonely. I figured there was no better way to fix that than to head somewhere warm and festive. I figured that, down in Puerto Rico, I’d be able to escape the frustrating holiday songs that play on repeat inside of every store after Thanksgiving. Caribbean holiday songs are about pouring rum on your problems, having a multitude of family members, baby Jesus, and even death. They actually have danceable beats. But more importantly, there are no damn bells mentioned in any of them.
One of my favorite songs is “Caminan Las Nubes” or “The Clouds Walk,” which is about San Antonio, a favorite patron saint among so many of my Puerto Rican family members. I imagined myself singing from home to home, reveling in the parranda traditions with relatives and friends my father had grown up with.
But then Hurricane Maria touched down.
We didn’t know what was going on down in Coamo, my father’s hometown. We didn’t know how my father’s family was surviving the storm.
So I listened to Puerto Rican Christmas music.
I replayed bomba and plena music videos over and over and over again. I thought that, if I imagined the island as a place filled with the patron saint festivals I’d grown up attending, then I would feel a little better.
I knew, though, that wasn’t reality for my family in Puerto Rico. The few photos I saw of that southern part of the island showed trees stripped of their leaves, light posts leaning against buildings, and houses without windowpanes or roofs.
One of my aunts was finally able to call me in November, and I found out that my uncle’s bar had been damaged by the 175 mph winds and their home had been partially flooded. I nearly cried as I imagined the stress they’d experienced during Hurricane Maria.
That day, I played several mixes of Puerto Rican holiday music, and I wondered if people would be able to actually celebrate, to sing and dance from house to house like they had done all those years before. I read a piece written by a student at my former graduate school; it was called “For The Sake of Puerto Rican Christmas.” Her words soothed me. Like so many of us in the diaspora, she also hadn’t heard from her relatives for a while. She discussed the importance of the holiday season for passing down Puerto Rican culture, both on and off the island.
It hurt to realize that this part of our culture was threatened by a natural disaster we had no control over.
After that, I reached for every little slice of Puerto Rican-ness I could find. I ate as much Puerto Rican food as possible. I drank coquito like it was water (that’s our creamy coco-nutty holiday drink). I replayed YouTube videos of people performing traditional dances. My heart was broken because I couldn’t go to the island for the holidays, but I promised to express that side of myself, somehow.
Every year, Banco Popular, the chain of local banks, puts together a Christmas television special that highlights artists and well-known Puerto Ricans. Clips show people throwing themselves backwards into the ocean waves on New Year’s Eve for good luck, and describe how so many have faced adversity in the past, as they continue to now.
I watched the recent special this month with my father. He didn’t know that I saw how he kept wiping his eyes. As we watched, he told me about a Puerto Rican swimmer who wasn’t allowed to compete on the island’s team because he was given a scholarship in the States. When he won a medal, the U.S. national anthem played. The American flag was raised, but he waved a little Puerto Rican flag to show the stadium where his heart was.
“He’s a champion; they all were,” he said, his voice shaking.
Come Christmas Eve, otherwise known as Noche Buena in my home, I’ll make an early resolution to continue learning as much about my Caribbean history as possible. I’ll do my best to use my writing career to talk about different cultures, especially Puerto Rican culture. Maybe this New Year’s Eve, I’ll give my dad my 2017 calendar so that he can burn it, like he did growing up there. We’ll make New Year wishes, for us, and for the island.