A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
The following is Chapter Seven of a serialized novel. Start at Chapter One.
When the aspen leaves turned yellow and fell and the mountain peaks grew white, I knew the change of seasons was upon us. As December approached, the days became shorter and the sun sank earlier behind the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A cold nip was in the morning air and it wouldn’t be long before the first light snow blanketed Santa Fe and transformed the city into the inside of a Christmas ornament that glittered with snowflakes when you shook it.
The beginning of winter meant that Christmas was fast approaching. This stirred up great excitement in our family. Preparations began weeks in advance. Food was the most discussed topic of conversation leading up to the big day. My mother and her sisters began networking soon after Thanksgiving, deciding on who was preparing the biscochitos, empanaditas, panocha and other goodies for the platillos Nativos (Christmas foods).
There was one aspect of the Christmas gathering that was never in doubt. The location always had been and would continue to be grandma’s house. My grandma’s little adobe on Agua Fria Street was much too small to accommodate our clan. Several other locations would have been much more practical but no one ever dared approach the topic with her. It was understood that Maria Lopez was the epicenter of the holiday celebrations. Like a good daughter, my mother never questioned the Christmas hierarchy.
Our last days of school before the holidays rushed by, as we looked forward to a whole month of vacation. All the kids were excited as we filled our classrooms with construction paper decorations and the fifth and sixth graders rehearsed a Christmas play that would be performed for the whole community. On the final day before our Christmas break, every classroom had a party and we exchanged humble gifts and handmade cards. We sang Christmas carols like Noche de Paz (Silent Night) and Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful). Our day ended with the breaking of the traditional Christmas piñata and a treat of biscochitos and hot chocolate before heading home.
We left school in the late afternoon with our hearts and bellies full, and the whole town seemed to be transformed. Farolitos seemed to magically spring up everywhere and walls and rooftops glowed with the warm light of candles burning in paper bags filled with sand. Every downtown portal post was wrapped with green fresh evergreen garlands and the Plaza was lit up with bright Christmas lights of all colors. I trudged through the heavy snow marveling at Santa Fe’s rebirth into a winter wonderland. All of the adobe buildings were layered with soft white flakes.
The next morning was Christmas Eve and it was filled with brilliant sunshine after the storm had passed overnight. Everyone was excited and preparations were in full swing. Our family was hard at work preparing for Christmas at grandma’s house.
We were busy all day preparing food, setting up the Christmas tree and getting everything ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. At dusk we came together to go on our annual farolito walk.
As soon as the sun set, we made our way to Cristo Rey Church where a beautiful Las Posadas portrayed Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus sleeping in a manger. The roles of Mary and Joseph were performed by church members dressed up in their personal renditions of humble attire. The baby Jesus was only a doll because the cold temperature made using a real infant impossible. However, they were able to scrounge up a live donkey which added an air of authenticity to the presentation. Father Martinez gave a brief sermon in front of the Posada and this was followed by the choir singing novellas accompanied by the freezing fingers of a couple of guitar players.
We lingered by the Posada for a while bundled up against the night as our breath escaped in white puffs. Eventually, we began our stroll toward Canyon Road. We walked down the magically lit street, filled with the glow of farolitos and luminarias.
Every year my mom and dad had the same debate during our journey. They could never agree as to what a farolito or a luminaria really was. My dad contended that farolito was the proper name for the candles that were lit inside small, brown paper bags partially filled with sand. The glow of these bags was awe-inspiring when they lined the streets and rooftops of downtown Santa Fe. Luminarias he insisted were bonfires that Christmas Eve walkers stopped by to warm their hands and feet and to drink hot cider near. They were lit by homeowners who considered it their duty to comfort their holiday guests.
My mom disagreed adamantly, claiming that the opposite was true, the glowing paper bags were called luminarias and the bonfires were farolitos. This argument raged on year after year and the question was never settled but despite their disagreement, we had a wonderful time, meeting old friends and singing carols. My brother and I followed behind the grown-ups, our eyes shining with the light of the blazing embers.
Christmas Eve was capped with a Midnight Mass at St. Francis Cathedral. The beautiful stone church overflowed with worshippers, filling every pew. My brother, Angelo fell asleep in my mother’s arms before the mass even began. A large choir sang inspiring hymns and Father Martinez performed the Christmas service for the gathered faithful. This was when I began to feel overwhelmed by the sights and sounds around me. My head started spinning and the singing combined with Father Martinez’s voice trailed away into faint echoes as I laid my head down on the backrest of the hard wooden pew and drifted away. Every year I vowed that I‘d make it through the whole mass and every year I failed.
When our family got together during Christmas, the scene was amazing. There was an endless supply of laughing, hugging and food. Everyone marveled at how tall the kids were getting and there was loud Mariachi music blasting from the record player. I ran around the outskirts of the activity with my countless cousins. We laughed and screeched at the top of our lungs until we dropped down on the rug from sheer exhaustion. There was plenty of posole, tamales, menudo, sopa, chili rellenos, chicos, panocha, and empanaditas for everyone to enjoy until we surrendered to the cooks and had to refuse even one more bite. Life was good.
No one in our family was particularly well-off and so the gifts we exchanged were mostly handmade or came in the form of food offerings. A typical gift might be a bag of apples, a plate of biscochitos, a jar of green chili jam, or a bag of piñon nuts. The most important thing was not to forget anyone.
Some of the more creative members in our family like my aunt Lucinda came up with outrageous handmade gifts. Tia Lucinda had an uncanny talent for taking pine cones and bringing them to life by gluing on stick arms and legs, adding grass for hair, and attaching button eyes and noses. She created the most hilarious likenesses of people that she unveiled on Christmas Day. Everyone found her caricatures uproariously funny and her gifts were always a big hit.
An unforgettable example was a pine cone with a paperclip fashioned into wire-rimmed glasses and tufts of yarn wrapped around the ears leaving a pronounced bald spot on top.
“Guess who this is?”
Everyone laughed until tears ran down their cheeks because it looked just like Uncle Antonio and when he was presented with his likeness, he posed with it while flashbulbs went off preserving the scene for posterity.
Sometimes Christmas gifts came in the form of labor. For instance, an uncle would present his brother’s family with a cord of chopped wood or someone might offer to rebuild a carburetor. No matter what resources anyone had, the gift exchanges were heart-felt and when the family was gathered around the fresh-cut evergreen tree in my grandparent’s warm home, the expressions of joy were of equal intensity no matter what the size of the gift. Even the children were expected to present offerings and they often came up with Christmas drawings, poems, or handmade Ojos de Dios or “God’s Eyes,” made of sticks and colorful yarn woven in diamond-shaped designs.
Our extended family was hard-working and were upright citizens in the community. My mom and dad were happy to have them as role models for us as we were growing up. Angelo and I were often invited to have supper or spend the weekend with our cousins. My dad’s brothers took a special interest in us and one of them always seemed to be around to mock-wrestle or just rub the tops of our heads and exclaim,
“What’s happening Bro?”
The exception was my dad’s youngest brother, Silverio, whom I seldom saw except during the holidays. The family spoke in hushed tones when they brought up Silverio’s name. The gossip was that he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd early on and he’d become a “pachuco” in high school.
Silverio grew up to be the handsomest of the Romero boys. He was tall and elegant with high chiseled cheekbones and a Romanesque nose and chin that were strong yet delicate in their form. Silverio had almond skin and dark, intelligent eyes that penetrated anything he set them upon. He swayed naturally when he walked and when he smiled, which he seldom did, he could break any woman’s heart in the room.
Silverio preferred formal pachuco-style dress when he made his rare appearances at family gatherings. He wore what was referred to as a “zoot suit” with baggy trousers held high at the waist and cuffs that fit snugly around his ankles over his pointed, shiny Florshiem shoes. A long, draped sport coat hung down almost to his knees with a shiny, gold key chain dangling from one of his pockets. His silk shirt was buttoned up to his neck where a crucifix necklace hung. His hair fell over his collar and he combed it with a pompadour and a duck-tail in the back that he slicked down with a handful of pomade.
Silverio projected a cold, hard stare that could send a chill down your spine when he chose to. My grandma claimed that she’d never seen that look in his eyes before he was sent to the New Mexico State Penitentiary for two years at the tender age of eighteen for being involved in a gang fight in which a local boy had been stabbed. He was a source of anxiety and dismay to our family and when he came around briefly at holiday gatherings, the room grew more reserved and furtive glances were cast in his direction. Silverio did not feel much more comfortable during these occasions and he never stayed for long. He shook a few hands in the complex pachuco manner exposing the colorful tattoos on his wrists and forearms. He hugged grandma, referring to her as his “Corazon” and addressed his male relatives as “carnal” which means “brother” in prison slang. Those that he wished to acknowledge briefly were greeted with a quick, backward motion of his head and as he lifted his chin, he exclaimed “orale.”
Usually after a few minutes a horn honked from a low rider carrito parked out in the street or his latest “vieja” wandered in wearing a short, tight skirt, dramatic make-up and a huge hair-do and motioned for him to leave and rejoin his “chorizos” in whatever dark and sinister activities they were up to that night. He departed proclaiming “Ay te miro” (see you later) or “Ay te watcho” (take care of yourself) and he disappeared not to be seen or heard from for several weeks until he decided to show up again.
Although the grown-ups regarded Silverio with uneasiness and disdain, I was fascinated by my dangerous, mysterious uncle. In a world in which my family was trying so hard to be model Hispanic citizens and fit into white American culture, Silverio had the “ganas” to say: “I’m not following your “pinche” rules to become a good Chicano boy. I’d rather be cruising with my vatos and getting “pedo” than bowing down to your bullshit superior attitudes. This is one pachuco you’re never going to tame.”