Celebrations in Latino Landscapes
Published: February 6, 2018
(stream/download) as an MP3 file
Listen to old and new stories from and about the people and places of Latin America.
HOST: Steve Curwood
STORYTELLERS: Elida Guardia Bonet, Maria Hinojosa, Antonio Sacre
[Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]
CURWOOD: From PRI, it's the annual Living on Earth storytelling special.
HINOJOSA: One of the very important parts of the celebration is the lighting of the candles because it’s in this way that you are guiding the path for the spirits to see where they’re going. you have to put water because the dead are very thirsty.
CURWOOD: Today, it's celebrations in Latino Landscapes. I'm Steve Curwood. In cooperation with Latino USA, we're bringing you old and new stories from and about the people and places of Latin America.
BONET: From that mango tree to that coconut palm tree, my father hanged the hammock. And there, I lay and I guard the mangoes. Making sure the birds didn't get them before we did, making sure the other kids in the neighborhood didn't get them before we did.
CURWOOD: So, relax and join us for Living on Earth's annual storytelling time, right after this.
[Oscar Lopez “Forgive Me” from Heat (Narada Records 1997)]
CURWOOD: This is an evergreen edition of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may notice it's not our usual theme music this week, because it's not our usual program. Today, we are swapping stories amid the days of the winter solstice and Christmas. So sit back and relax because as we do every year we’re gonna give you a break from the sometimes challenging news of environmental change and offer up some wonderful tales of the season of the returning light. And if the holiday season is challenging your waistline, the treats of today’s program are guilt-free and non-fatting—unless you go overboard on mangos, but more about that in a few minutes.
Today in cooperation with NPR's Latino USA, we head south climes for our celebrations. And, joining us are Latino storytellers to share their personal stories of celebration, culture and landscape. We have Maria Hinojosa, host of Latino USA and president of The Futuro Media Group, here to tell us a tale of the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. She's joining us from New York. Hi there, Maria.
HINOJOSA: Hey Steve, how you doing?
CURWOOD: And from Los Angeles, we're joined by Cuban storyteller and actor, Antonio Sacre. Antonio is the son of a Cuban, and, though he's never been to Cuba himself, he'll take us there, by opening his father's heart. Hi there, Antonio.
SACRE: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: And from Austin, Texas, by way of Panama, we're joined by storyteller Elida Guardia Bonet, who will make our mouths water with a story of mangoes. Welcome.
BONET: Hola, Steve.
CURWOOD: Elida, I can't wait to hear your story. Once I heard that you were going to tell us about growing up with mangoes in Panama, I have to say I got a bit envious, because I didn't discover mangoes until I was an adult. And now, to be honest, I can't get enough of them. So, why don't you begin.
BONET: I was a young child, six, when my family moved from Puerto Rico, where I was born, to Panama, my father's country. We were greeted by aunts and uncles and cousins that I had never met or if I had, I did not remember. Being a big family--we were eight at the time; Tommy would come later—it was hard for us to find a place to live. We found an apartment, but there was no yard for me to play in. There were no trees for me to climb. And the best day of the week was on Sundays, when my father got all eight of us into a Pontiac maroon station wagon and off he went, off we went, to discover and explore the countryside and the city of our new home.
My favorite spot was Mango Street—well, that's not really the name of it, that's what I called it—for it was this long, narrow street, lined with mango trees. And my dad will park the car and we'll run out and we will gather as many mangoes as we could and we ate as many mangoes as we could and we took home as many mangoes as we could.
Well, we finally found a house big enough for all of us. Well, that is, after my father added bedrooms and bathrooms and a place for the cars. But the yard, for a young child, it was a huge yard, and full of trees. There were lemon and lime trees. There were papaya trees. There were coconut palm trees, and there were four mango trees, and two of them by my bedroom.
One of them was a little tree, but from the trunk there was a branch that made a special nook for a child to climb up and daydream, like all children do. Those mangoes were little. They didn't taste like much. And we didn't eat them. But the other mango tree on the other side of my bedroom, well, it was not really our tree, it was our neighborhood's tree, but all of the branches fell to our side. And at the beginning of mango season, we ate those mangoes, but they were “mangos de lacha,” the fiber kind, the ones that get between your teeth. And at the height of mango season, when the other trees gave us their fruit, we allowed for these mangoes to fall to the ground and rot, and the smell of mangoes would come in through my bathroom window and permeate my sheets, my clothes. There were days that I went to school smelling like mango.
I went to an all-girls' school and in that uniform, in that skirt, in that pocket during mango season, there was always a mango, a green mango from the tree at the back of the yard. Those mangoes were so big we called them “huevo de torro.” We used to eat them green. We sliced them. We added salt and pepper and vinegar and we ate them, until our lips were raw or we had a stomachache.
Now, the best mangoes came from the tree by my parents' bedroom. It was not a very big tree. The mangoes were not that big, but they were called “mangos de calidad,” quality mangoes, for they had no fiber. They were juicy and sweet. Oh, everybody loved our mangoes. My Tia Irena would come asking for mangoes for her mango ice cream, sweet and creamy. My cousin, Dianita, she will come asking for mangoes for her mango chutney. She made it with the mangoes from our backyard, but she never shared her recipe. But sometimes during mango season, in the mail, I get a jar of mango chutney from my cousin Dianita.
Elida Guardia Bonet
We ate mangoes every which way you can imagine. We sliced them for breakfast, we sliced them for snacks, we sliced them for desserts. Even my mother loved mangoes. But there was a problem: my mother was a gringa, from the United States, and if she grabbed that mango from the tree and the milk of the mango touched her hand, her skin, the next day she had a rash; she was red. They say that only happens to gringos, and it must be, for it only happened to her in our family.
The best part was that from that mango tree to that coconut palm tree, my father hanged the hammock. And there I lay and I guard the mangoes, making sure the birds didn't get them before we did, making sure the other kids in the neighborhood didn't get them before we did. And there I used to sit with my mother and she will tell me stories. It was there that she told me why we had moved to Panama: to be near my father's family, to learn his culture, his language, but so many years had gone by I did not remember any other place. Panama was my home. I loved it.
Years later, I went away to St. Louis, Missouri, my mother's city, to go to college, but there were no mango trees there, there were no hammocks. I was homesick. And I returned to what would be the last time with my mother, and under that mango tree, in that hammock, I share with her my dreams. I wanted to be a teacher. And then we talked about boys, the many boys that I liked, and my mother laughed and said, “Ay, Elida, you are in love with love.”
I returned to the United States, to Austin, Texas, to continue my studies, and I fell in love, and not with love but with my husband-to-be. And I returned to marry, under the mango trees that knew me as a young girl, that knew me as a young lady, and now saw me as a bride. And I bid my farewells knowing I was not to return. And back in Texas, when I get homesick, I go and I buy a mango, an imported mango from Mexico, and when I bite into it and I feel the juice, the sweetness, it takes me back to the home of my childhood. When I wake up now, I don't see mango trees; I see cedars and oaks. My hammock hangs between two oak trees, and there I lay, with my two daughters, and we share our dreams and our stories, just like I did, with my mother, a long time ago, under the mango tree.
[Various Arists/Govi : Gypsy Heart” from The Best Of World Music Vol 2: The Instrumentals (Putumayo 1993)]
CURWOOD: Elida, I have to say that here in Boston when the Mexican mangoes are at their peak and they go down to eight bucks for a case of them, that's one of my most favorite times of years. Except for the mango hair being stuck in my teeth, what's the secret about that?
BONET: It depends on the kind of the mango, if you get one with fiber or not.
CURWOOD: So, what's it look like if it doesn't have the hair in it?
BONET: You don't see like the little fibers through it, and when you bite into it, you just pick a big chunk of it. It feels maybe like a cantaloupe, that you don't feel anything, little fibers going through, any strings, so you can just really enjoy it and you don't have to be picking your teeth.
HINOJOSA: Yeah? No, you know I actually--mangoes, mangos. And I even love to say the word in Spanish, which is mango, because somehow it seems just, to me, to say mango brings back even more the memories that I have of mangos. And for me they were something that I only had when I would return the Mexico. So, it was very much a relationship of this fruit, this gorgeous, gorgeous fruit with this extraordinary variation of color: I mean, from bright green to bright yellow to this kind of dawn colored orange and pink. They were my favorite fruit, and, like Elida, I would eat them in Mexico for breakfast, and I would have one for dessert after lunch, and I would have one for dessert after dinner. And in Mexico--or at least in Tampico, which is where I really remember eating the mangoes, which is where my dad is from—we would take a fork, a special kind of fork, and you put it into the bone of the mango, el hueso de mango, and then you hold it and you peel it like a banana and then you eat it like ice cream, holding onto the fork. And the most difficult part was getting the hairs out of your teeth, but it was part of the fun.
CURWOOD: Hanging on with a fork and with like the juice dripping down your hand.
HINOJOSA: It's delicious.
SACRE: The first time that I went to Coney Island was with my fiancé, my wife-to-be, and the first mango she ever ate was there. And there was a man there, I don't know where he was from, maybe Puerto Rico, or the Dominican, but he took a mango, like you said, Maria. And he jabbed it on the fork and he peeled it back, and then he took this huge knife, like a machete, and just cut this perfect flower out of the mango and gave it to my wife, and she ate it like an ice cream cone. It was incredible to see that and to see her taste this mango, which was incredible. So, that's one of my sort of favorite experiences around a mango.
BONET: You're all very sophisticated with forks. We used to just grab it with our teeth, peel them, and just bite into them.
CURWOOD: Elida, tell me more about your wedding. What was it like for you, under that mango tree, getting married?
BONET: Well, it was wonderful. That's where we had our party, and that was my back yard, so we had canopies up and the whole family was there. My dad has a huge family. So, I was really surrounded by everybody I loved. My mother was the only one who was not there, but many of her very good friends were there. And it was just a wonderful feeling of knowing that I was not going to stay at home, but I was celebrating in a way my wedding, a new beginning, in the place that had seen me grown up. And, at the same time, I was saying goodbye in my favorite spot, you know, under the mango tree.
[Various Arists/Govi: Gypsy Heart” from The Best Of World Music Vol 2: The Instrumentals (Putumayo 1993)]
CURWOOD: You're listening to the Living on Earth holiday special in cooperation with Latino USA. I'm Steve Curwood and we'll be right back.
[Yomo Toro: “La Cuesta de Josefina” from Celebremos Navidad (Ashe Records 1996)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. This week, we're celebrating the holiday season in cooperation with Latino USA, with storytellers Antonio Sacre, and Elida Guardia Bonet, and Latino USA host, Maria Hinojosa. Maria, you're up next, with a tale about the Mexican celebration called the Day of the Dead and how you brought it to New York City. I have to say, the Day of the Dead sounds pretty gruesome to me. How does that become a celebration?
HINOJOSA: Well, you know what, I think that part of what we have to realize in terms of tradition and celebration is that things change and different moments in history and different generations take rituals and make them their own. So I think how the Day of the Dead ended up becoming a celebration, for me in a very particular sense, is one part of the story. I think the broader part of the story is, how is it that Mexicans choose a day, el Dia de los Muertos, to, in fact, celebrate life, the life of those who have passed onto the other side? And that's what it is, it's a celebration, not of their death, it's a celebration of their life. It's the celebration of recognizing that they are, on this particular day—actually three days, October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd—that this is the day in which the spirits of the past are in the closest proximity to the living.
CURWOOD: That sounds fascinating. So Maria, I'm ready. Let's hear about the Day of the Dead.
HINOJOSA: Well, my story is not a written story; it's just a story that I'm going to share with you about my experience of el Dia de los Muertos. And, interestingly enough, even though I am Mexican, I didn't spend el Dia de los Muertos, ever, in Mexico, because I was growing up in the United States. So my first actual celebration of el Dia de los Muertos happened in the late 1980’s when I was living on Tijuana, Mexico, and working in San Diego and commuting back and forth every day, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. And at that point in my life bringing the two parts of myself the closest together, the U.S. side of myself and my Mexican self.
I was invited to go to a celebration of el Dia de los Muertos, and I had known about el Dia de los Muertos ever since I was a child, because we had little sugar candied skulls. We had them in our shelves, encased in glass, with our names on them. So I always knew that Mexicanos liked to have sugar coated skulls kind of hanging around in their bedrooms. I mean, I held onto these sugar coated skulls forever. They were just like the thing. And no one else in my neighborhood had one, so I was just so cool with my little sugar-candied skulls.
But it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I actually went to participate in a celebration of el Dia de los Muertos. And what we did was we ended up going to the cemetery, which is where you, in fact - one of the central places where you celebrate el Dia de los Muertos. You go back to the cemetery where your family is buried; you clean off the plots; you make sure everything is clean and watered, that the grass is tended to. It's really—the cemeteries become filled with life. In places, in cemeteries that are usually empty, or almost empty, suddenly, on these days, they're like crowded with people. I mean, there are lines forming outside, there are people selling stuff outside, you can buy buckets filled with water to clean your tombstone, you can buy the flowers, you can buy any kind of food that you want. Because what you're doing is you're bringing to the cemetery all of the things that this person would have wanted in life, if they ate. One of the major pieces of food that you bring is mole, mole de pollo. It's just part of the tradition on the Day of the Dead, so you bring offerings of mole de pollo. If they like to drink Coca-Cola, you bring Coca-Cola. If they like cerveza, you bring the beer. There are some families that can afford to actually hire little mariachi bands or other kinds of musicians to come and play music.
One of the very important parts of the celebration is the lighting of the candles, because it's in this way that you are guiding the path for the spirits to be able to see where they're coming. That's what the role of the candles is, is for them to be able to see where they're going. You have to put water, because the dead are very thirsty. Where they are, it's not a place where they can get water, so you have to offer them water in big goblets. And you offer them cempazuchitl flowers, which are marigold, yellow-gold flowers, which are for the smell and also for the guiding of the spirits to come back onto this earth.
So, that part of the celebration was the first time that I saw that was in the late 1980’s, in Tijuana, and I became extraordinarily captivated by this sense of life in the cemetery. And I did a documentary about it; I spent a lot of time thinking and writing and looking at el Dia de los Muertos. But the reality was that this was Tijuana and my muertos were buried in Mexico City, and I had been growing up in Chicago, so there never really was a place for me to go, there wasn't a cemetery for me to go to, to do this ritual.
So when I moved back to New York, from Tijuana, and I realized that the Mexican presence was growing in New York, I came up with an idea with a cultural worker that I was friends with, that we wanted to bring el Dia de los Muertos into New York City. So we thought a lot about doing public events: could we do it in Grand Central Station, could we do it at the Port Authority Bus Terminal? Someplace where the tradition would be seen, visible, witnessed by many, many, many people. Of course, they weren't going to let us light candles and put food out in Grand Central Station, so the next best thing was an art gallery. And we recreated, in an art gallery, essentially what you would have seen in a cemetery. We had flowers, marigold flowers. We created a huge altar. Because many people, if they can't get to the cemetery, what they do is they build, essentially altars in their homes. Which is what I started doing, and then wanted to make it public, so we built an altar, in a gallery, and it was filled. This tiny room in this gallery, we filled it all with dirt and sand and it really made you feel like you were—when you were walking onto this space, that you were walking onto the earth, that you had some kind of contact with nature.
And that's what you also felt at the altars: there were flowers and, again, many candles and incense. And every year since then, essentially, I've done some kind of event for el Dia de los Muertos. I ended up having huge parties at my home in which people who didn't know anything about el Dia de los Muertos would come every year and we would build a huge altar also with lots of dirt and sand, hello?, in my five floor walk-up apartment. But people loved this because it was, in fact, as if you were communing with nature but you were in an apartment. And people would bring photographs of their loved ones. And so it transformed itself from something that in Mexico is celebrated in the cemeteries, to something that is now celebrated in different forms. In my case, it was either in public events, like in galleries, or in museums where I ended up doing some altar work, or it was in my own apartment where I would be holding these festivities.
So it's interesting to see how a celebration that is centered around a place, a cemetery, suddenly you can take it, because of the circumstances of your life, and make it something different. And I know that now, for example, even in New York City, which has got a skyrocketing Mexican population, there are people who build altars in their apartments, in the basements of tenement buildings in the Bronx and in Queens and in Brooklyn, and these celebrations are alive.
But part of what my commitment, in terms of this particular celebration, is to bring it out into the public and so that everybody learns something as a result. What is it to, in fact, celebrate a day of the dead? And for those of us who have these kinds of traditions, to make them public and known, and part of the American cultural landscape which they are already part of.
CURWOOD: Hmm. This is amazing. Now, if I came to one of these newer celebrations, the New York version that you're doing in someone's home, what would I come away with, do you think?
HINOJOSA: Oh, I think that you'd come away with a sense of like, “wow, that was important, to spend a day thinking about my loved ones.” This is a day which is dedicated to them, to doing things for them, to talking to them, talking about them, and feeling rejuvenated or more committed to your life as a result of having given this time for your ancestors, for the people who open the path for you.
BONET: Well, in Panama we don't celebrate el Dia de los Muertos that way. It's more religious, in a way, in the sense traditional. There’s no radios are on, in the whole country. There's no TV. There's no festivities. I have a sister-in-law who was born on that day and she has never been able to celebrate her birthday on that day, because there's no parties allowed. And it's just part of the tradition. Now, my father tells me that that comes more from the Spanish tradition, that it was the seriousness about death.
And to me, it was so liberating, when I moved to Texas, to see the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration. Because I feel that it is like Maria says, a celebration for life. You're celebrating the afterlife but you're also celebrating the life that you shared with those people here, on earth. So I have really enjoyed, now, seeing a whole new kind of celebration for el Dia de los Muertos. And now what I do is, in my own personal family my mother's the one who has passed away, and she used to love to eat Oreos, and she used to open the Oreo and put slices of bananas in between and eat them like a sandwich. I guess she mixed two cultures, the American and the bananas from our backyard. And now, I do that, as kind of a remembering of her.
SACRE: It's just an incredible example of honoring these people. I think about that. One Mexican teenager told me that when they go to the cemetery, they can actually speak with their dead. At first, it freaked me out, but then I thought about that. It's like, you listen, and what would your grandmother say at this moment? And he said, “I asked my grandmother what she thought about my girlfriend and even though she's been dead, she told me that she was pretty great.” This kind of back and forth. And to hear that was kind of amazing. It was an incredible example for me, the last five years, just being a part of the celebration as well, and seeing it, and having these kids tell me about what they do at home, and the altars they build. I got my first candy skull this past year, Maria, actually. Somebody gave me one. It's so sort of scary and beautiful and what do I do? I don't eat it, right? No, don't eat it, just leave it there. Okay. Thanks. It's kind of amazing.
But with my father, the Cubans don't really have a day of the dead, either. But there's a real connection to the cemetery. An example that I always had for my father was, every time we'd go to Miami, to visit my grandmother who was living there, in Little Havana, we would go to the cemetery and he would clear off his father's grave. His father came from Cuba and then died a year after being here. And so my father would always go to the cemetery, clean off the grave, he'd put flowers there. He'd spent some time there. And that was an example I had that was not tied to a specific tradition but that connects with the Day of the Dead. Because none of my mom's side of the family is Irish-American. I've never been to the cemetery of any of our relatives in Boston. I guess you have the big funeral, the big wake, and then, that's it.
CURWOOD: Time now for another holiday story from Mexico and I'll share this one with everybody. It's called The Legend of the Poinsettia.
Pepita was a little girl who lived in the small village of San Pancho, Mexico, hundreds of years ago. Pepita's parents were farmers and they were very poor, and as Christmas approached, Pepita's mother and father became sick. She had to help care for her little brother and sister. There was much work to be done, and young Pepita did her best to cook and clean and help with the burro in the fields. All the other people of the village were busy decorating the church and making special gifts to give to the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. Everyone was planning to take part in the Christmas Eve procession, singing and carrying candles.
Then, Padre Gonzales would place the figure of the baby Jesus in the manger, and the villagers would place their special gifts around the manger. Pepita had tried to weave a colorful blanket for the baby, but she was too little and the yarns became tangled. She tried to sew little leather boots for her gifts, but the leather was too tough and she was not strong enough to push the needle through. She tried to think of something very special that her family could give to the baby Jesus, but with her parents sick and her younger brother and sister too small to help, she could think of nothing. And soon, it was Christmas Eve.
The villagers lit the candles and began singing, as they walked through San Pancho, carrying their gifts to place at the manger. Pepita hid in the darkness, watching with tears in her eyes as the procession went to the church. Suddenly, an old man stepped from the shadows nearby: "Little girl, are you Pepita?" he said.
"Si," answered Pepita, wondering who he could be.
"I have a message for you," he said. "Your mama and papa are going to get well soon. Do not worry. Go to the church and celebrate Christmas with the other villagers. Your brother and sister are waiting for you."
"I can't," Pepita told him. "I don't have a gift to put in the manger. I tried and I tried to make something, but I couldn't finish it."
"Ah, Pepita, whatever you give the baby Jesus will love, because it comes from you."
"But, but, what can I give?" And Pepita began looking around.
She saw a big patch of green weeds nearby. Pepita rushed over and picked a huge armful. Then she turned to the old man, but he was gone. Pepita walked into the church. All the candles were blazing. The children were singing as she came down the aisle with her bundle of green weeds. "What is Pepita carrying?" the villagers whispered. “She's bringing weeds into the church.” Pepita placed the green weeds all around the manger, and she bowed her head and prayed.
A hush fell over the church. Then voices whispered, "Look, look, look at the weeds!" Pepita opened her eyes. Each weed was topped with a flaming red star, and when everyone went outside, after the Mass, all the bunches of tall green weeds throughout the town were covered with red. Pepita's simple gift had become beautiful. And since then, every December, the red stars shine on the top of the green branches in Mexico.
Of course, those green weeds are poinsettias. The plants are native to Mexico and Central America. The Aztec's revered them as a gift from the gods. Later, poinsettias became associated with Christmas, because they bloom at this time of year. In Mexico they're called Fire Flower, or Christmas Flower, or Flower of the Holy Night. They were first brought North by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as the U.S. minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830. He eventually became wealthy breeding these plants that now bear his name. And, by the way, contrary to popular myth, poinsettias aren't poisonous.
Elida, what does that story bring up for you?
BONET: I tell that story, and I think it's a beautiful legend. I grew up with poinsettias always at Christmas time. I have one of my aunt’s, who used to grow them in her backyard, and she always gave them to us for Christmastime. And I didn't know the story growing up, so it was real interesting, when I heard the story, to relate it to my growing up with the poinsettias. But we never called them poinsettias; we always called them la flor de Navidad, or la flor de la Noche Buena.
CURWOOD: The Flower of the Holy Night.
HINOJOSA: Yeah. I just, in listening to that story I remember my mom, when we would go to Mexico, over the holidays, and she would say, “Vamos a comprar las nochebuenas; tenemos que ir a buscar las nochebuenas.” And there was always this thing about “las nochebuenas, las nochebuenas,” and I would be like, “What?” Because “Noche Buena” means good night, or holy night, and I didn't quite understand it until then. Finally, I would see my mom going to the market and stocking up and making sure that the house was filled with nochebuenas. But I had never heard that story. So for me, it's a story that now you can be sure that I will be incorporating into my own family's traditions of our Domini-Mex kids who are experiencing Christmas. Who knows where they'll be, anywhere from New York to Bethlehem, Connecticut, to Mexico, to the Dominican Republic. But I guess this will be part of the stories that I'll just tell them now, because it's really wonderful.
SACRE: Well, it just reminded me of how incredible a celebration the whole Christmas season is for Latinos. I mean, it starts with the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and then it goes all the way through January 6th, the Day of the Kings, the Three Kings, and the posadas all through. It's a two-month, huge party is what it is, and that's just—when I see the poinsettias I begin to remember this is the beginning of the party, and it won't end until, well for some people, all the way into February.
CURWOOD: You're listening to the Living on Earth holiday special, Celebrations in Latino Landscapes, in cooperation with Latino USA. I'm Steve Curwood, and we'll be right back.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood, and today we're putting the news aside and focusing on the news of celebrating human history. We're listening to stories of celebrations in Latino landscapes, in cooperation with NPR's Latino USA. And once again, I'm joined by storyteller Elida Guardia Bonet, Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa, and storyteller and actor Antonio Sacre.
Antonio, it's your turn now. We asked you for a story from Cuba, and to get this story for us it turned out you had to make an important personal journey yourself. Why don't you start.
SACRE: As a young boy, I would ask my father questions about Cuba, “What was it like? Why did you and your family leave? How did you get here? Don't you want to go back? Why can't we go visit?”
He would say, “Mi’jo, someday when you get older I'll tell you all about Cuba.” “Mi’jo” means, my son, my boy. But I got older and I still don't know. Nothing would stop a conversation with my father more quickly than a question from me about Cuba.
At my grandmother Mimi's house in Little Havana in Miami, during our huge family gatherings, with plates of amazing Cuban food piled high, I would venture a question about Cuba, thinking maybe my uncles or my aunts would tell me something, anything. But these questions only bought discomfort and silence and an immediate end to the conversation. I loved those dinners so much that, soon, I learned to never ask about Cuba again.
Antonio Sacre (Photo: George Kestios)
I became a professional bilingual storyteller, and when I lived in Chicago I met many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who began to share their stories with me. This led me to live in Mexico for almost three months, over a period of two years, where I walked in the towns they came from, I danced and ate and learned all I could about that beautiful country. After those few months in Mexico and the many stories I heard there, I realized that I had never truly done that with my own culture, me, a Cuban-American storyteller with a wealth of stories about Mexico and nothing about Cuba.
The last time I was in Mexico I was in the Yucatan, a quick and cheap flight away from Cuba. I called my dad from a travel agency, and told him I wanted to see the place he lived. I wanted to walk those beaches and those city streets. I wanted to smell the air and feel the land in my body, in a way that only being there would satisfy. He said that his dream was to take me to Cuba someday himself. But that I was a man and if I needed to go I could make my own decision. He then added that none of his immediate family would ever go back to Cuba until Castro died. My dad had never told me about his dream of taking me to Cuba, and I almost started to cry. I wanted so bad to go to Cuba with my dad. But I also remembered my grandmother telling me that Castro was going to outlive everybody, and here I was, so close. Legally, it is difficult to get to Cuba from the United States. I decided I would honor my father, and his family, and not go to Havana.
Maybe someday, Castro will fall. Maybe someday, my dad and I will go to Havana, to the places where he lived and studied and played. Maybe someday. Maybe.
A few months ago, I got a call from the radio show, Living On Earth. They told me they were doing a holiday program about land, culture and celebration in the Latino culture and they were looking for submissions from storytellers. There I was, a Cuban-American storyteller, and I knew nothing about the land and culture and celebrations in Cuba. I stammered through the initial interview, saying, “Well, I know a lot about Mexico. There is the Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, and the dances at the Zócalo, in Mexico City, and the celebration of the Sun and the Moon, at the pyramids in Teothihuacán.” They were interested but not sure how it fit in, how I fit in to their program. I felt ashamed and sad and a little cheated. I wanted to have something authentic, something really Cuban, something from my family, but all I had from Cuba was silence.
As a last ditch effort, I told them that I would ask my father about the celebrations in Cuba. I didn't tell them that all my previous attempts to learn about Cuba from him had failed. We hung up and I was nervous. I was nervous about causing my dad any pain by asking him about Cuba. I was nervous that I would ask and he would shut me off again. The closest we ever got was last summer, when my dad told, “Mi’jo, sometime when we have four or five days together, you know, alone, I want to tell you the whole story, you know?” But I live in Los Angeles and I travel a lot, and he lives in Delaware and still works harder than anyone I know. So these four or five days have not happened yet. Sometimes it seems almost like it's not going to happen at all.
I called him and told him about the Living on Earth program. I set an appointment to interview him, one day the next week, about rituals and celebrations tied to the land in Cuba. Like I said, we're busy men. It was my assignment; it was my work. He understands work and he wanted to help me in any way he could. We agreed on the following Tuesday morning at nine a.m. We always talk many times during the week, with the conversations often less than a minute at a time. So, all week long he would call and say, “Mi’jo, I be calling you at nine a.m. on Tuesday, okay? Now, that is California time so it is noon my time, right? You give me 1,000 dollars and I help you out. Okay, Mi’jo? Okay, baby.” We would laugh, and I couldn't wait until Tuesday.
Here was the chance I had been waiting for, couched in the idea that it was for my career. But deep down I knew it was just an excuse for me to ask, and for my dad to answer, questions I've always had and he's always evaded. He called at 8:59 a.m. on Tuesday. I breathed deeply as I picked up the phone. He said, “Dime. Tell me, what do you want to know?”
I said, “Tell me about the rituals and celebrations tied to the land or the harvest in Cuba.”
He thought for a minute and then he said, “There is the bringing in of the sugar cane harvest. You know, those men used to cut the fields down with the old machetes and they would come in and there will be a huge celebration for them.” I couldn't believe it, a celebration in Cuba tied to the land, just what they wanted. I quickly asked if he ever went to one. He said, “No, no, that was for the campesinos and the people who lived in the country. I was a city boy, raised in Havana.” There was silence. I tried to mask the disappointment in my voice. I asked if they had any celebrations in the city. Again, he thought for a minute. I could sense an urgency in his silence. He wanted to be able to help his first-born son, the son who shares his name.
He said, “No, not really, Mi’jo. Many of those things are tied to the Indians and there are no Indians left in Cuba. The Spaniards killed all of them. Not like in Mexico and South America where a lot of them still survived. On the island there was no way for them to survive like the Indians in the mountains of the Americas.” I waited, unsure what to say, waiting for the inevitable "that's enough" that I was so used to hearing. Then he said, "Wait a minute. We had two different kinds of celebrations every year. We celebrate the feast days of the saints, and so in our family we celebrate Santa Barbara, my mother's name, and San Antonio, my father's name, and any of the other saints we feel like, you know?" I asked what those celebrations were like. He said that there would be a huge gathering, usually at his grandmother's house. All the family would come, and there would be the special plates of food that they only cooked on the feast days, and special drinks, and wine, and all kinds of stories. I realized that he was describing, for me, a dinner at my own grandmother Mimi's house. Every detail was almost exactly the same.
I asked what the other kind of celebration was. He said, "we would vacation at the beach at Cojímar and they would celebrate the feast of San Juan y Los Pargos, the feast of St. John the Baptist and the running of the red snapper. Some old tradition said that when the fish were running, San Juan was sending them. And we would have a huge street party, with singing and dancing, and we would bring out the finest clothes: the pants and the shirts and the pants -- you know, the clothes, you know? If some fisherman brought in a big catch of Pargo, we would cheer and eat it, and if not we'd have a huge party, so that San Juan will remember us and send us the food next year, you know? It was really just an excuse to get together and get drunk, really, but we did it every year, you know?"
I heard a joy in my father's voice that I had rarely experienced. I know how his eyes crinkle up whenever he truly laughs and I knew they were crinkling up now. I felt my own eyes as he talked. They were crinkling too, just like my dad's. He talked this way for some time. I was pacing around my house, my hands tingling, wanting so badly to share this with my brothers, with my wife. I asked about other celebrations, ones that are not just an excuse to party, but our phone connection was wavering. I yelled into the phone. He kept saying: "Mi’jo, I don't hear you." I cursed the phone company; I cursed the stupid company that made my cordless phone. I panicked. If we hung up, would the spell be broken? Would he remember years of exile and hardship and sadness and forget the dream of celebration that we were sharing?
"Pa, let me call you back," I said.
He said, "What?"
I yelled, "Let me call you back."
I dialed as fast as I could. He picked up. His voice was perfectly clear. I asked him the question again. He started talking again, a little more subdued, but he continued. He began to talk about the big religious festivals, Holy Week before Easter, la Noche Buena, the Christmas Eve celebration, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, August 15th. I asked what all these were like. He began to smile again, I could tell, thousands of miles away that he was smiling again.
He said, "The whole week there are ferrias and carnivales and different barrios would have different parties and dances in Mary's honor." I asked him what a ferria was. He said, "You know, games for kids and horse rides and the silla volar, the you know, the flying seats, you know? They always had the long processions from the church through the different barrios and back to the church, you know? Everybody was either parading or on their porches as the procession went by. Mimi and me and my father would go to the porch and watch the, the, the saint, you know, that huge statue that four strong men would carry and say prayers as the Virgin went by. And Mimi would put her hand on my head and say prayers over me."
I asked him what his favorite celebration was. He quickly said, "Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, that's the best celebration we have. We celebrate the Eve, not the day like you do here. Christmas Day, for us, is only to recover from La Noche Buena, the all night Christmas Eve vigil and feast. Okay. On the 20th of December my uncle Titi and I would go and pick out the pig, and he would kill it. I would help him shave the hair like bristles off the skin. First, I would pour boiling water over the skin, to soften the hair, while he would take the straight razor and sharpen it 50 times. Mimi and the other women would prepare the adobe, the marinade, made from the oil, the cumin and sour orange and oregano and garlic, and we would poke holes in the pig and adobe the pig. It took three or four days to fill it with a marinade, to cook it outside in the fire, you know? It was a big macho thing, killing the pig, stabbing it in the throat. I know it sounds a little disgusting but, Mi’jo, that's what we did.
"Mimi used to say that the problem with America is people don't see their meat before they eat it, so they have less respect for the animal, and less respect for the land that is necessary to raise that animal. They always eat free range in Cuba, organic, you know, no hormones, and we live to be old, old, old, you know?"
I thought, that's just like Mimi's house at Noche Buena in Miami. Mimi always had pork at Christmas Eve. Once, she even got a whole suckling pig and laid it on the table, head, eyes and all, complete with an apple in its mouth. I thought it was disgusting. My brother kept taking the apple out of the pig's mouth and saying, “Hola, Mimi, Como estás?” Moving the little head of that pig, she would laugh so hard.
I asked him what happens after killing the pig. "Mi’jo, you eat it. We had a huge table outside, the weather always beautiful, with my grandmother at the head of the table. We have fruit trees in the yard, where we plucked the lime for the meat and the lemon for the water and the avocados for the salad, right from the tree to the table, and the mangoes for dessert. The toasts begin, you know, for the ones that are dead. And the ones that are alive. And we are happy to be alive. And we miss those who are dead. And we are happy that Jesus will be born soon and we are sad that he died. But we are happy that he rose. We toast everything, you know? For the pig, and Titi, and the table, and the laughter, we all laugh, very thankful for the laughing. Then we go to the Misa del Gallo, the Rooster's Mass, you know, the Midnight Mass, and we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. Then, off to somebody's house for breakfast and more drinks and food and stories."
I had been to the Misa del Gallo Mass with Mimi, I told him. He laughed, “Mi’jo, I been to a bunch with her, you know?” I asked him if they ever had a pig for other celebrations. He said, “A pig could be for any event, you know, baptism, wedding, funeral. But Noche Buena was the big tradition. But it was a lot of work, and a lot of money, and a lot of preparation, you know? The last pig we had in Cuba was in 1957 and then the revolution happened and we all came to America.”
I asked if they ever did the pig in Miami, the way they did in Cuba. He said, only once, but things got too complicated. His father died; it wasn't the same. He said, “Listen, Mi’jo, we came with no language, no money, no job. Some families left in Cuba, divided by the politics. It was a mess, those first few years, you know?” I asked if they did anything like it now, or the San Juan and the Pargo, the snappers, or the ferrias. He said, "No, no, those traditions are tied to Cuba. It's not the same here. My mother tried to do some of these things when she came, but after she died a lot of those traditions died as well, at least in our family. We move here, the traditions get broke. My friends in Cuba tell me the revolutionary government banned certain things in Cuba. So, the ferrias in Cuba, the carnivales, they're all different now, you know? And the snapper population is very small now, so nobody really celebrates that anymore. Maybe it's smaller because of the industry. I don't know.”
“We replace them with other excuses to get together now, you know? But they are not the same. You and I had this excuse of the radio program to get together now. It's different, not as big, but just as sweet."
He said: "Mi’jo, before Batista, it was a big party, and the Batista started to rob the country, and then Castro promised different for a while, but he robbed the country in a different way, and after the both of them, the party was over. Our youth, our innocence was robbed from us, and it has never been the same. Our youth was taken, and I don't want to talk about this anymore." The point finally came that I had feared. He said, "You call me if you need anything else," and he hung up. And I felt a profound sadness for my father and his people. Maybe someday my father and I will walk the beaches of Cojímar, outside of Havana, laughing with the fishermen as they bring in a load of pargo, praying to San Juan to bring us more fish. Maybe someday I will pick a mango from a tree in Havana and bring it to the table and laugh with all my family as my brother takes the apple out of the pig's mouth and says something silly. Maybe someday my father will place his hand on his grandson's head as the statue of the Virgin Mary goes by on the backs of four strong men, and bless him, the way his grandmother did to him, and mine did to me. Maybe someday. Maybe. Until then, his stories will live in my memory and in my imagination, and maybe that will be enough.
CURWOOD: Antonio Sacre, what an amazing story about celebration, and my eyes are soaking. Elida, how did you respond to this?
BONET: It makes me sad to think that, as we do grow older and if we are not able to keep our ties to our homelands, we will lose some of those celebrations. And then, like Antonio says, there's always that hope that someday you will be able to do those things. And I think that we do have to keep them. And even if we can't go back to the homelands, like in Antonio's case, somehow bring them alive, for us, for ourselves, and for our children.
HINOJOSA: Well, it was wonderful. I think for me what made it more painful in a way is that I have been blessed with being able to go to Cuba several times, so I've been to Havana. I've been to the playa de Cojímar, and I was really rooting for you, Antonio. I was saying, “Get on the plane, get on the plane! Go, get on the plane.” On the other hand, you know I think it's such an honorable thing that you've done, to wait for your father, and hopefully, you'll be able to go back together.
CURWOOD: Well, we've just about run out of time now for today's holiday storytelling special on Living on Earth, in cooperation with Latino USA, and I want to thank all of you for sharing such wonderful stories with us today: Elida Guardia Bonet, Maria Hinojosa, and Antonio Sacre. Thank you all.
HINOJOSA: Thank you.
SACRE: Thank you.
BONET: Thank you.
Music used during the show:
Various Arists/Govi : Gypsy Heart” from The Best Of World Music Vol 2: The Instrumentals (Putumayo 1993)
Yomo Toro: “La Cuesta de Josefina” from Celebremos Navidad (Ashe Records 1996)
Various Artists/Estudiantina Invasora : “Caballo Viejo” from Unwired Latin America (World Music Network 1997)
Tin Tan: “Zacudo” from The Best Of World Music Vol 2: The Instrumentals (Putumayo 1993)
Various Artists/Irakere “Boliviana” from Putumayo Presents: Cuba (Putumayoo Records 1994)
Varioous Artists/Los Lobos “Flor de Huevo” from Putumayo Presents: Mexico (Putumayo Records)
Oscar Lopez: “Those Times” from Heat (Narada Records 1997)
All Living On Earth music themes composed by Allison Lirish Dean (2001)
CURWOOD: And thanks to engineers John Verboon in Los Angeles, working with storyteller and actor Antonio Sacre; Walter Morgan in Austin, Texas, with storyteller Elida Guardia Bonet; Neal Rauch in New York City, with Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa; and Noel Flatt and Jeff Turton, who helped us here in Boston. Our storytelling special was produced by Cynthia Graber, with help from Jessica Penney, in cooperation with Latino USA. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and check out our Facebook page, PRI’s Living on Earth.
I'm Steve Curwood, thanks for listening, and have happy holidays.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and decision-making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World for Tomorrow.
ANNOUNCER: PRI, Public Radio International.
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