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Poetic License: My first tropical Christmas

By Staff | Dec 24, 2014

“No hableh inglh en Viequeh,”

(Do not speak English in Vieques)

I still remember my mother’s words

a few days before Christmas

and after we had just completed

a five-day steamship voyage to Puerto Rico

and a long drive in a pblico to Fajardo

where we were waiting for “La lancha”

to brave the choppy straits for two hours

and land us on my mother’s home island,

Vieques, an island off

the eastern shore of Puerto Rico,

itself an island in the West Indies.

And I still remember

that when half the island came

to greet my mother

and see the first americano

born in the family

and hear him speak English

and kept demanding

“Habla inglh, habla inglh,.”

that I held out for as long as I could,

repeating after each request

my mother’s admonition,

“No hableh inglh en Viequeh.”

but the bribes of bananas, oranges,

sugar cane and pennies were too great

for four year old me to resist

and I succumbed by reciting

the first stanza of the Star Spangled Banner

that my brother had taught me

before I left New York

and even though I was not too sure

of the meaning and pronunciation

of many of the words,

a shower of applause and pennies

rewarded my first venture

into performance poetry.

A few days later

I wowed the crowd even more

at my uncle Agustin’s house

when I remembered it was Christmas

and added to my repertoire

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

but when I asked,

“cundo viene Santa Claus?”

I was given the bad news:

Vieques was one town

Santa (San Nicols) didn’t go to.

Everyone watched my reaction

in a careful silence

until my devastation was relieved

by my uncle’s revelation

that there were Tres Reyes,

Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar

who delivered presents

not on Christmas Day

but on January 6 because

the camels on which they traveled

were much slower than reindeer.

They would be tired and hungry

and if I left some straw for them

in a shoebox, the next morning

I might find presents.

‘Three Santa’s! Three times more presents!’

I remember thinking in English,

‘and they don’t even have a list

of who’s naughty and nice.’

I obeyed and did not speak English in Vieques

except on those performance occasions

and that one time when my Uncle Braulio

tripled the ante to three pennies

to hear me say the “f” word

but the Spanish I spoke

was an equal source of delight –

larded with English words and syntax

hybrid utterances such as

me com five bananas and no me gustan anyway

were preserved in family lore for decades.

I didn’t realize then

I was one of the pioneer speakers of Spanglish.

There were parties every night,

and three of my uncles were the island’s musicians

and my cousins and I

would accompany them on parrandas

to people’s houses where they played

while everyone sang aguinaldos

and danced and ate and drank

and partied on to the next house

with many of us being carried sleepily

and piled on beds and hammocks

at each stop.

On New Year’s Day, I wept with my cousins

who were heartbroken over the slaughter

of their pet suckling pig, Cucharn,

but that evening we fought over the rights

to his cuerito – roasted crinkled skin,

that tasted better than candy.

Barefoot and happy the entire time,

I spent my second remembered Christmas

with coconut palms instead of pine trees,

sand instead of snow, sleeping in open shacks

without doors, rocking softly in hammocks

canopied with mosquito nets,

with Three Kings and camels and straw

and hand-made gifts in shoeboxes,

and family singing and dancing every evening —

the rhythmic joy and faith of the aguinaldos

shining through their poverty,

illuminating and deepening

the memory and celebration

of all my Christmases to come.