By Toni W. Riley
Idalia Luna’s eyes light up and she becomes very animated when she remembers the family Christmases she enjoyed growing up with Puerto Rican parents in Dade County, Florida.
Luna, an administrative assistant for the City of Hopkinsville finance office, said her father’s family became “Americanized” and always had a “Santa Claus Christmas,” while her mother’s family celebrated a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas.
Her maternal grandmother, Sixta, immigrated to Florida in 1965 to escape an abusive marriage and in search of the American Dream. She learned that women could work in the U.S., so she worked the fields picking any kind of fruit that was in season to provide for her nine children, who lived in Puerto Rico and were eventually able to join her in America.
A single parent who could not read or write in Spanish or English, Sixta and her family lived in the same housing project as the Luna family and the two families became very close. Idalia’s parents, Magdelena and Roberto, sparked a love connection and were eventually married.
The Puerto Rican traditions that her mother’s family kept are nearest to Idalia’s heart. She tries to replicate them for her own children, Priscilla, 14, Victor, 5, and Israel, 1.
The first celebration — and there were several that went on into February — was Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, which means goodnight. The event is centered on family, food and fellowship, not gifts. Neighbors were invited to attend as well.
“The family started planning early — November was almost too late,” Luna remembered. “We would go and pick out the pig for Buena Noche.”
The pig, or lechón, was purchased from a local farm, fattened to 300 pounds and then brought to a central location the day before Christmas Eve and slaughtered.
“Everyone would come over — family, extended family, neighbors — and everyone had a job to do,” Luna said. “That’s the way it is in Puerto Rico.”
All parts of the pigs were used. The blood was collected from blood sausage, and the intestines were cleaned and used as casing for the sausage. The marinade used to season the pork included cloves of garlic, sofrito, a mixture of bell peppers, onions and cilantro as well as a very secret ingredient, which Luna refused to divulge.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, the pig was put on a spit and turned over an open fire. It was a great honor to be allowed to turn the spit, she noted.
Nochebuena was celebrated at a relative’s house and would spill out into the garage or the yard— one year, Luna remembers a huge tent. The food would come out that evening.
Her Aunt Maria was in charge of arranging the meal for as many as 200 people. The spread included “arroz con gandules,” which is rice and pigeon peas. Luna said it was a staple in Puerto Rico and a must-have at Nochebuena.
There was also the blood sausage, fresh seafood salad, pasta, octopus, conk, fried plantain, papaya, mango and pineapple, and mashed potatoes and gravy — never at Nochebuena but the next day at the Lunas.
“Oh my gosh,” Luna exclaimed as she moved on to dessert. “There would temblequé (coconut milk custard), arroz con dulce (sweet rice pudding with raisins and coconut milk), and coquito (a coconut eggnog).”
After the huge dinner, a family band with guitars and tambourines would go up and down the street serenading neighbors with aguinaldos, which are Puerto Rican Christmas carols. The celebration closed down when all the families went to midnight Mass at their Catholic church.
On Dec. 28, they would recognize The Day of the Innocents as part of the Christmas Story. This day commemorates the Biblical event when King Harrods’s soldiers took the first-born male from every household trying to find Jesus. In Puerto Rico, a group of men dressed as soldiers visiting homes and taking the oldest male child. The event ended much happier when families retrieved their sons by giving the soldiers candy.
Three Kings Day, or Día de los Reyes, is Jan. 6 and celebrates the visit of the three wise men to Jesus. In Luna’s family, it was the traditional gift-giving day.
On the evening of Jan. 5, the children would take a shoe box, fill it with grass for the camels of the Three Kings and put it underneath their bed. The next morning, there would be a gift from each of the kings. Because the Lunas also celebrated an American Christmas, it was condensed down to one gift. Idalia laughed when she remembered that her mother played this really well.
“She might say, ‘If you pray really, really hard you might get the gift you wanted but didn’t get at the Santa Claus Christmas,’” Luna recalled.
The holidays emphasized the importance of family over and over, Luna said. Even when her mother and father divorced — which was unheard of — her father was still part of her mother’s family and her mother was part of her father’s family. They still celebrated their different Christmases together.
“Even thought my parents divorced, traditions were important,” she said. “My paternal grandparents were very active Catholic, it was very important that we stayed as a united family even though we were blended.
“We accepted the family blend, accepted half brothers and sisters, accepted the difference in color. We wanted to stay a strong, united family no matter what was going on (so) when we got together, we put our differences aside … once you are family you are always family.”
It’s with this sense of family that Idalia tries to recreate Puerto Rican traditions for her own children.
“There are some things I just can’t do because there isn’t a large enough Puerto Rican community in Hopkinsville,” she said.
She does try to recreate the lechón but on a smaller scale. She uses a Boston butt and tries to find the spices that make the pork traditional. She treats the pork in the same way her family did back in Florida, and the results are pretty close to the original, she bragged.
Her family also celebrates Three Kings Day, even though finding grass on Jan. 6 in Kentucky is a bit of a challenge.
“We need to embrace our differences and culture. The concept of the American Dream and traditions are great but we cannot lose our Puerto Rican, Borinquen culture,” she said. “We have to pass it on to our children so that it can keep living beyond my kid’s kids and me. It’s the way to preserve who we are as a people.”