Esmeralda Santiago (Courtesy of Esmeralda Santiago)
Meeting revelers at the door in your pajamas, fattening up the Christmas piglet...we’ll hear these and other stories of a girlhood in rural Puerto Rico from Esmeralda Santiago, author of three memoirs and two collections of Latino writing. Santiago also brings us memories of her first winter in Brooklyn, telling stories around an open stove.
CURWOOD: You’re listening to a Living on Earth holiday special. Coming up next, wild oregano and clove from Puerto Rico. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. We continue now with our holiday storytelling special, and this year we’re spending it with Caribbean storytellers.
And now we’re pleased to welcome a writer of three best-selling memoirs and two anthologies of Latino literature, Esmeralda Santiago.
Esmeralda Santiago spent her young girlhood in rural Puerto Rico—and then came of age in a place that couldn’t be more urban: Brooklyn, New York. Esmeralda, thank you so much for being with us.
SANTIAGO: Hi! Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad!
CURWOOD: Thank you. So, you have some really—I have to say, they’re delicious descriptions of Christmas or Navidad, where you grew up with your sisters and brothers. I’m thinking of the smells. Tell me what it’s like to prepare for Christmas on the Island.
SANTIAGO: On the Island, it is a feast for your nose because it’s such a part of our cuisine to have highly aromatic food and a lot of these things like oregano just grows wild, rosemary will just grow wild. You’re smelling the garlic, you’re smelling the onion, the rosemary, the bay leaves, the ginger, the coconut, which is just such a big part of Christmas—cinnamon, cloves, but also you’re looking at these beautiful colors of these spices and things that are only served at Christmas. You really can just walk around and just smell to your heart’s content.
CURWOOD: (laughs) Mmmmm. Now, in Puerto Rico, don’t they have those little pigs that they serve special at the holidays?
SANTIAGO: Well we have the lechon and that is a pig. I remember as a child that we would get the cerdo—and so it’s called a cerdo while it’s alive, it’s called a pig while it’s alive—and my mother would feed it scraps from the table and we would basically take care of this animal that would then be slaughtered for our noche buena meal, which was on the 24th of December. So I grew up thinking of the animals that we had as part of our meals, they were not pets for me. And to this day I really have a hard time with household pets you know, because I think ‘why feed it if you’re not going to eat it?’ It made it a little challenging when my children were growing up and wanted dogs and cats.
SANTIAGO: I think you can.
[MUSIC: Parradon Boricua “De Lejanas Tierras” from Parradon Boricua (Universo Latino-- 1997)
CURWOOD: You know, that’s so bright and cheerful to have as you’re roasting your pig.
SANTIAGO: Yes, and that particular song speaks about something that is very much a part of the Puerto Rican celebration of the holidays and that is the parrandas. And the parrandas are just a group of people who get together with whatever instruments they have at hand, sometimes just their hands, sometimes a can and a stick, and they go from house to house singing these traditional songs and all they expect is that the people there might give them something to drink or if there’s food they get fed. But the whole idea is that everybody dances together, sings the songs together and shares in the joyful spirit of the holiday season. And one of the words that is used—the parrandas are the people who go from house to house, but when they actually arrive at your door, the whole idea is that they take you by surprise, so that they love it when you have just gone to sleep and then all of a sudden there’s people outside of your house singing and clapping and this is called an ‘asalto.’ And the idea is that then you are wearing your rollers and your face creams and you’ve been asleep for a couple of hours so—I’m speaking from experience (laughing)—so you get up, open the doors, turn on all the lights, and immediately start cooking an asopao or you pull out whatever you can find in the house to feed the musicians, give them something to drink. Some people make the traditional drink coquito, which is coconut milk with rum and spices and then you just have this big party until daylight comes and then everybody leaves and sometimes you go back to bed or more frequently what happens is the householders then join the parrandas and go onto the next one, the next person’s house.
CURWOOD: Now, there are a lot of places around the world that focus less on Christmas day, if you’re looking at the Christian tradition of the holidays, and more on Christmas Eve and then at Epiphany or in Latin American it’s called what—Three Kings Day?
SANTIAGO: Si, el dia de los tres reyes magos, the Three Magi Days and Christmas Day was really a day for reflection, you went to mass - you pretty much slept from having parties all night. So we actually opened our presents on noche buena.
CURWOOD: So what happens on the Three Kings Day?
SANTIAGO: Well on Three Kings Day that’s when the Three Kings, the Three Magi, who have been traveling for thousands of miles on their camels, come and leave presents for all the girls and boys who have been good—little girls and boys that year. And in order to prepare for them we of course, try to be good little girls and boys but we also try to curry favor by leaving delicious fresh grass for their camels in our shoes and leaving some water for the Three Kings to drink because of course, they’ve been traveling such a long way and they must be thirsty. And we go to sleep and the next day we get our Three Kings gifts and the tradition is in fact that that’s when you get your big present, is on the Three Kings day.
CURWOOD: Now, you have a story about one Christmas, one Navidad, when there was one thing that as a little girl you wanted so badly—could you read your story of that doll?
SANTIAGO: I would be happy to read “A Baby Doll Like My Cousin Jenny’s.” I was eight and I wanted a baby doll like my cousin Jenny’s, with pink skin and thick-lashed blue eyes that shut when we lay her down to sleep. The doll had no hair, but its plastic skull was traced with curved lines that ended in a curl on her forehead—painted chestnut. It was the size of a small baby. Its chubby arms and legs slightly bent. Its tiny fingers opened to reveal a hand with deep furrows and mounds. I loved the way it smelled—rubbery sweet. And its round little body with a tiny, perfectly formed naval above its belly fold. The baby doll had no penis but there was a little hole in her bottom at the end of the crease on her back that defined her tiny, flat buttocks.
Christmas was coming. I could tell because the songs on the radio were about how much the singer needed a drink, or about how his woman had left him alone and miserable through the holidays. There were other songs, about the parrandas who went from house to house playing music in exchange for a piece of roasted prok, or a pastel wrapped in a banana leaf, or a shot of ron canita. The neighbors tied red crepe paper around hibiscus and gardenia bushes, hung crocheted snowflakes along the eves of their tin roofs, displayed flaming poinsettias on their porches. The smells of Christmas floated from every kitchen—ginger and cloves, cinnamon and coconut, oregano, rosemary, garlic. Thick gray smoke curled from the backyards where pigs roasted, their skin crackling and sizzling to the scratching of guidos, the strumming of cuatros, the plaintiff aguinaldos about the birth of Jesus and Noche Buena. While Noche Buena was the adults’ holiday, el Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos was for children—the day we’d wake to find the presents they’d delivered after traveling thousands of miles by camel. Papi helped me compose a letter, which I worked on for days, laboriously copying it over and over until there were no spelling errors and my request was clear:
Dear Three Magi,
I have been good this year. You can ask mami and papi if you don’t believe me. I would like a baby doll like my cousin Jenny’s, with blue eyes that close. I hope you like the water I left and the grass for the camels. Have a good journey.
Papi gave me a sheet of paper from the ones he used to write his letters and poems and let me borrow his pen, which meant I couldn’t make mistakes because the ink could not be erased. My sister Delsa asked me to write a letter for her. ‘Ask them,’ she said, ‘for a baby doll like the one Jenny has.’ ‘But that’s what I want,’ I said. ‘We can both get one and pretend they’re sisters.’ But I didn’t want Delsa to have a doll like mine, so in Delsa’s letter I wrote:
Dear Three Magi,
I have been good this year. I would like a doll, but not like the one you are giving Negi so that we won’t get confused.
I didn’t ask papi to check the spelling, and I wrote her letter on a piece of notebook paper. When Delsa complained I told her the three magi would know she hadn’t written it if the letter looked too fancy since they knew she was only six-years-old and couldn’t write very well.
The days between Noche Buena and el Dia de los Tres Reyes were the longest two weeks of the year. Right in the middle we celebrated New Years with noisemakers and songs that no longer despaired of lonely holidays but hoped for better days ahead. Mami and Papi gave us cloth pouches filled with nuts and raisins and we were allowed a sip from the coquito Mami made, which tasted sweet and coconuty, and made our heads spin if we sneaked more when our parents weren’t looking.
The night before the Three Magi were to come my sisters and brother and I searched for the freshest, most tender blades of grass to leave in our shoes for the magi’s camels. We placed the shoes under our beds, the toes sticking out so that the magi would see them. We cleaned out empty tomato sauce cans and filled them with water from the drums at the corners of the house. Then we lined them up by the door, my letter in front of my can, and Delsa’s in front of hers. The other kids complained that we had an advantage because we could write but mama convinced them that the Three Magi knew what each of us liked, even without a letter.
I woke up while it was still dark. Two shadows moved around the room carrying bundles in their hands. I closed my eyes quickly. ‘It must be two of the magi,’ I thought, ‘while the third stays outside with the camels.’ Next time I woke it was daylight and Delsa was squealing in my ear, ‘look Negi, look! I got a baby doll just like Jenny’s!’ I scrambled out of bed, looked under it, found a flat rectangular package under my shoes. It didn’t look wide enough to hold a baby doll. It was a box, with a colorful painting of a racetrack divided into squares and stiff horses in various positions around it. Papi saw my disappointment and asked, ‘don’t you like it?’ His face looked worried and Mami came and stood next to him and looked at me sadly. ‘I wanted a doll,’ I cried. ‘Like that one!’ I grabbed the doll from Delsa’s arms and she grabbed it back and ran to a corner of the room. Mami and Papi looked at each other. Mami knelt and hugged me. ‘You’re a big girl. This game is for a big girl. Dolls are for little kids.’ ‘But I want a doll!’ I sobbed. She looked at Papi, who took my hand and walked me to the yard. Across the room, Delsa undid the baby doll’s dress, its pale pink skin glowing under her brown fingers. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t afford two dolls, and she’s younger.’ ‘What?!’ ‘I’ll get you a doll for your birthday.’ ‘What happened to the Three Magi?’ Papi looked at me, his eyes startled, his lips pursued into a tight ‘O.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and hugged me. The End.
CURWOOD: The end, oh. (laughs) You grow up to a certain age in Puerto Rico but at a certain point your mom decides to take you what—to New York City, where her parents were. I want you to go back for a moment to that apartment in Brooklyn and you’re 13-years-old. Tell me how you got started telling stories.
SANTIAGO: One of the strongest memories I have of our first winters in Brooklyn was that we lived in an apartment that was three rooms and it was—the apartment was not heated—which we didn’t know when my mother rented it. So here it was, my mother, my six sisters and brothers, the youngest of whom was about five, my grandmother, and my grandmother’s boyfriend, all living in this three room apartment, which was unheated. So, in the evening, we would all gather in the kitchen, because in the kitchen was the gas stove and my grandmother would light the oven and we would kind of sit around the oven and tell stories. And because I was the reader in the family normally I began to tell a story either of something I had read, or of something I had learned in school, or more frequently something I completely made up on the spot. And at some point my mother would get up and say ‘go on, keep on telling the story, I’m just going to make some hot chocolate.’ And the way that she made hot chocolate was she begins by grating a big bar of hot chocolate and melting it in a double boiler and then boiling the milk and boiling it several times because having grown up in the country, she still did not believe pasteurization would get rid of all the germs so she still boiled it the way she did when we used to get the milk right from the cow. And we would all sit and have hot chocolate and Saltine crackers as the stories are being told.
CURWOOD: And what was the story that your little sister kept asking you to tell over and over and over again?
SANTIAGO: Well they loved the stories about princesses in which the princess was a heroine. They focused on this whole idea that—we didn’t like the you know, sleeping princess and then the prince comes through with a sword and yeah, yeah, yeah, right. You know, we were raised by a single mother (laughs) so we just didn’t quite believe in the hero prince at all. And so the stories that were the ones that I was asked to tell were just these altered stories where I would begin with Cinderella or Snow White or any of the traditional fairy tale princesses but it didn’t end with her being rescued by a prince, it very likely would end up with her rescuing the prince or just having some marvelous adventures or some marvelous battles, and that was really the things that they were most, most eager to hear about because we were little girls who had no power really and just envisioning ourselves as powerful princesses was the one thing we indulged in the privacy of our own little kitchen, with the open oven door.
[MUSIC: Parradon Boricua “De Lejanas Tierras” from ‘Parradon Boricua’ (Universo Latino-- 1997)]
CURWOOD: Esmeralda Santiago’s next novel is going to be called “Whisperings of Tropic Nights.” Thank you so much.
SANTIAGO: Thank you, it’s been really fun talking with you and remembering my beautiful island and its lovely, lovely traditions.
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