Monday, December 24, 2007

Caja China? We Don't Need No Stinking Caja China!

At Christmas, Puerto-Ricans do Parrandas, Mexicans do Posadas, and Cubans do Lechon. This means that while Puerto-Ricans and Mexicans have very meaningful and festive Noche Buena celebration, Cubans sit around and eat pig. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just that we're more... sedintary, if that's even possible.

Regardless, it's a wonderful time. The Caja China is the name given to the the Cuban pig roasting method. The Caja China is sold online, and I'm not going to knock it here. It is really a well-built, well thought out system of roasting the pig. But, as far back as I remember, Noche Buena at the Palacios house was done old-school. The Caja China was not store bought. Each year, the Caja China is created. In fact, as I write this, my brother-in-law and the master pig roaster (his dad), have already set up the cinder-blocks, heated the coals, and smoked the wood chips, thus starting the roasting of the pig. The mojo has been prepared with the skill of a chemist. The Cuban coffee is intermitently brewed. It's hot outside, but every once in a while a breeze blows through.

This is an all day event involving food, wine, cigars, and great conversation over a 7-8 hour period. The conversation revolves around the economy, who's running for president, and of course, Cuba; nostalgia, anger, passion and laughter over the silliness of it all.

When I was 9, the scenario would have been the same. The same Miami breezes were intermitently felt. the smell of the pig roasting was overwhelming and made my stomach grumble, even though I had been munching on Cuban bread, gingerbread cookies, and mariquitas for most of the day.

The whole day was spent thinking about 3 things. First of course, obsessively thinking about what amazing things Santa was going to leave under the tree. Second, the bliss and utter joy of knowing that for 2 weeks, I would not have to go to school and could spend hours playing with the amazing things that would be left under the tree. Third, that unbelievable pig roasting all day over that heat.

And there was family. Everyone was together. This was not the last thing I thought about. I didn't have to think about it. We were there and we were together. And it was wonderful.

But oh, that pig! That Glorious pig!

Many images have been struck in American culture of families sitting around the table on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. In these images, we see a dad holding a carving knife in hand, ready to carve a white piece of turkey or goose, as the family sits still, looking on patiently for their delicious piece of that succulent meat. Norman Rockwell paintings captured these moments. They are beautiful and represent something that is timeless and noble, and are a reflection of what America represents to me; Love of God, country and family.

But someone really needs to capture that most important moment on Noche Buena, when the pig is hoisted out of the Caja China, skin crackling and popping. The entire family stands around, like ravenous wolves waiting for a turn at the most treasured part of the pig; the skin. Cubans really need an artist rendering of that moment. The pig-masters standing there wearing gloves, smelling of sweat and cigars. The rest of the family and invited guests looking on dressed in their Christmas best. The gloved hands begin cutting and ripping at the crisp, browned skin. Everyone begins to politely pick at the broken skin, which is still sizzling from the roasting. I can't eat bagged pork rinds. Once you've had them off the back of a freshly "Caja China" roasted pig, no bagged Frito-Lay pork rinds will do. The image of a Cuban family standing around a pig at dusk under palm trees in a Miami backyard. Any artists out there reading this, please accept this as my commission to have you paint this image for me. I would love to hang it next a to a Normal Rockwell in my living room.

The accompanying boiled yuca with mojo, arroz and frijoles.... pa' que hablar.

Well, it's only 11:30 am right now, so I better stop writing about this before I eat my laptop.

I was recently asked why I write this stuff down. I do it for the same reason Rockwell painted images of Americana. Someone has to capture these moments for my children. Historic moments, spontaneous ponderances, random ravings. Whatever they are, good or bad, meaningless or timeless, they only come around once in a while. If you don't write them down, they are easily forgotten.

Have a wonderful Christmas Eve. Make it memorable, and never forget it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

El Pesebre

Christmastime for a Cuban-American boy, whose first language was English and whose family belonged to the whitest denomination in America at the time (the Presbyterian Church in America) was interesting. It was interesting because the church I attended was made up of mostly Cuban families, all equally weird among among our extended family members because we weren't Catholics. Everyone went to church EVERY Sunday. There was choir practice and Bible study EVERY Wednesday. Our church was an amazing example of community built on culture, family and faith.

And yes, faith came last. We weren't the super holy people many of the adults pretended to be. Our church attendance was to be admired; but only by way of the love everyone in the church shared. We really wanted to be together. There was an air of superiority to our Catholic brothers and sisters however, which to this day rubs me wrong. But that was part of growing up Presby-Cuban. We were told we were right and more religious, and that is what defined us. There were some faithful among us, who understood the Gospel, and loved Jesus. Looking back however, the overall message of the church was "We are Cuban, and we are Presbyterian." Somewhere in there, we had some Christians, too.

So every Christmas, our church put on "La Cantata"; the concert event to end all concert events. My mom sang in the choir, and for a while there my dad did, too. They really were well put together (...the Cantatas). I am told our church was the talk among young churches in Miami back in the 70's. So the turn-out to the Cantatas was impressive.

And I'm pretty sure one of the few places to go in Hialeah to see a re-enactment of the manger scene was our church.

So "La Cantata" was always followed by "El Pesebre", the life-size manger scene. Every year, my dad built a manger out of wood. I'd go watch him build it, and hand him a 2'x4' now and then. All it took was a nicely designed wooden shelter, some hay and farm animals and you had true-to-life Bethlehem manger off of Okeechobee Road.

Thinking back, it was poetic. That area of Hialeah wasn't the best. There were a lot of seedy hotels, bars and other houses of ill-repute in the area. It was a perfect representation of the kind of people Jesus came to eat with, laugh with, live with and save. Though I don't think too many of us were thinking about that back then.

At least I wasn't. I was more into the live animals, dressing up like a shephard, and hanging out outside, thus avoiding having to listen to La Cantata (I mean, come on... I was 9 years old. Wait a minute... the tought of sitting through a Cantata NOW makes me ill, too... never mind). The night was clear, and I remember seeing the stars out. It was a great night under a Hialeah sky.

Then it happened. One of the animals, a goat, decided to bolt.

One of our wisemen, named "Ito", decided it was his job to bring back the errant goat, so he bolted too. And I'm willing to bet that this was the only time in all of Hialeah history, when a wiseman from the East was seen running across la 12 Avenida con Okeechobee, in full wise man garb, after a goat.

Ito finally caught his goat.

And while parts of this story may have been embelished, and the actual year might be off, Ito did chase a goat down the streets of Hialeah, and I was there to see the return of the goat. And Ito and the goat made that Christmas one of the most memorable ever.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

El Cho de Elsa y Raquel

I asked my dad to send pictures of Christmas past. This is what he sent me. Not exactly what I was looking for, but it did bring back some memories.

Growing up Cuban-American in the 1970's, TV was not the wonder-box of variety it is today. There were very few shows for kids, except for Electric Company, and Gilligan's Island and Brady Bunch re-runs. After that, you were pretty much on your own to make things happen. We didn't venture out in the neighborhood too often. A riot had broken out at Riviera Middle School one year. The riot was between Americans and Cubans. I've been told that riot police were called in. That may have been part of the reason why we didn't go out much. Or maybe it was just that we liked being at home; I don't know. Either way, being home a lot forced us to find ways to entertain ourselves.

My sisters were the creative minds. All they needed was some of the extra Goodwill clothes donated to us which was not fit to wear, now to be used for costumes, a few wigs (don't ask), some make-up and an impromptu script. The result?

El Cho de Elsa y Raquel.

"Cho" of course, is the word "show" spoken with a Cuban accent. We knew how to pronounce it correctly, but some words in English sound better with an accent, especially when used with other Spanish words.

My sisters put on a lot of shows over the years. Some were actually recorded on cassette tape, like the 'novelas' my grandmother would listen to.

What you see in the photograph here, is me dressed up as Santa (not sure why), playing a snare drum like a bongo (not sure why) for a "Cho" we put on one Christmas. I remember that day because this was one of our biggest Chos. Both sets of grandparents attended, as well as my parents.

I remember it because it was fun. That's pretty much it. We put on the show in my sister's room. The curtain was the closet door. The stage was set in front of the bed. And somehow, in this little 10'x10' room, we fit the actors and the audience, and had a wonderful time. I remember everyone laughing. My Santa belly was down by my crotch, so I looked like I had "enlarged testicle syndrome" (reference to the film Johnny Dangerously... not an actual ailment). I think that's what made everyone laugh the most. My sisters sang some songs and put on a great show. It was a perfect night.

More Christmas memories to come. By the way, my father clarified something for me from my last post. It was not a donkey running down the streets of Hialeah. It was actually a goat.