ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Each Christmas, we bring you an original story. And this year, two writers have teamed up. Esmeralda Santiago is one of them. She's the author of critically acclaimed memoirs, including "When I Was Puerto Rican" and "Almost a Woman." And Daisy Martinez is a writer, a chef, and host of the TV show "Daisy Cooks." Their story is called "La Parranda."
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: In Puerto Rico, each Christmas season, families are visited by a parranda. It's a raucous Puerto Rican version of caroling with more eating and drinking. It's also known as an asalto because at any time, friends and family can appear at the door, playing instruments and singing.
Puerto Ricans keep traditional food warm on the stove and invite the revelers inside to eat. "La Parranda" is the story of two sisters, Gloria and Carmen. Carmen, the elder, married and moved to the United States, leaving Gloria, still a teenager, behind in Puerto Rico. Each Christmas, the sisters talk on the phone. We begin in 1986.
(Soundbite of radio play "La Parranda")
CARMEN: Oh, come on, pick up. Merry Christmas e Feliz Navidad.
Gloria, it's me, Carmen. Merry Christmas from Brooklyn. Can you hear me?
GLORIA: Carmen, que bueno. Merry Christmas de Puerto Rico.
CARMEN: Where's Mommy? I've got to talk fast. This call is expensive.
GLORIA: Oh, she just left to bring Dona Lola(ph) some arroz con gandules. She'll be back soon.
CARMEN: How is she doing?
GLORIA: She's having some more tests after the holidays.
CARMEN: I hate it that I'm not there to help her. It's probably nothing. don't worry. Mommy is (Spanish spoken). I bet that she's been cooking up a storm.
GLORIA: Oh, you know how she is about Christmas. She's made enough pastilles for the whole barrio.
CARMEN: It must have been a lot more work these past three years since I've been gone. Christmas Eve is just not the same with just me, Panchito(ph) and the kids.
GLORIA: We really miss you too. But guess what, Carmen? I was Ano Viejo in the school pageant. I got to wear a white wig and a long beard.
CARMEN: You're 16 years old. What do you know about being old?
GLORIA: Well, I have grown up a lot since you've been gone.
(Soundbite of music)
CARMEN: I hear music. What's going on?
GLORIA: There's a parranda down the street. We heard about five of them last night.
CARMEN: I miss parrandas so much. There's nothing like that in Nueva York.
GLORIA: Why? Don't they have guitarras and buirros(ph) and maracas in Nuevo York? And people who like to sing Christmas songs and dance and celebrate the season?
CARMEN: Of course they have all those things here. But if a group of people show up at your door in the middle of the night singing and making a racket, neighbors will call the police.
GLORIA: (Spanish spoken). Oh, parrandas are so much fun. I helped mommy make the coquito.
CARMEN: Oh, to serve in the little china cups that only come out on Christmas Eve.
GLORIA: Oh, they've already been used several times.
CARMEN: I miss all that so much. Boys, shh, keep it down.
GLORIA: Guess what?
GLORIA: I learned a Christmas song in English.
CARMEN: Sing it to me over the phone.
GLORIA: OK. Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man's hat.
CARMEN: Goose? What goose? What happened to the lechon? It's not Christmas without the roast pork.
GLORIA: You're making a goose (Spanish spoken).
CARMEN: No, darling. We buy a (Spanish spoken), which is the leg of the lechon.
GLORIA: Just one little leg?
CARMEN: Well, it's a pretty big leg. You get about as much meat from one leg as you get from one lechon (Spanish spoken).
GLORIA: Well they must be American pigs then to be that big.
CARMEN: Listen, I have to go to the marqueta(ph) with the boys on the subway to get fresh gandules.
GLORIA: What's a marqueta?
CARMEN: Well, it's a huge building, like a plaza de mercado with many kiosquitos(ph), where you can buy just about everything. They even have a botanica where I can buy my good-luck candles.
GLORIA: Oh, but what do you need good luck for?
CARMEN: Well, maybe one of these days, my number will hit in the bolita.
GLORIA: La bolita?
CARMEN: It's a game that Don Julio(ph) runs out of his bodega. I pick a number and if it hits, I get money.
GLORIA: Oh, and then you get to spend it in la marqueta?
CARMEN: Listen, there's nothing you can't buy in la marqueta. Panchito says that you could even find a wife in the marqueta. I told him he'd better be careful. With two little boys and another baby on the way, he can't afford another wife on an auto mechanic's salary.
GLORIA: Ah, yes, Panchito, he's always joking.
CARMEN: Bueno, Nena(ph). I have to go because this call is costing me a week's pay.
GLORIA: Ah, I can't wait until I come visit you in Nueva York.
CARMEN: Me neither. I haven't forgotten my promise to bring you here. I'm just waiting until after the baby is born and we're more settled. You know, Panchito is up for promotion to foreman in the garage next year, and we can get a bigger apartment.
GLORIA: That's great. I can't wait.
CARMEN: Bueno, Nena, I have to go. Oh, and by the way, did you get the Christmas card that I sent with the money for the presents?
GLORIA: Oh, yeah, Mommy got it.
CARMEN: OK, mi hija, listen, I love you. Feliz Navidad and have fun with the parrandas. Tell Mommy I love her and that I'm lighting a candle for her good health.
GLORIA: I'll tell her. (Spanish spoken).
(Soundbite of music)
CARMEN: Hello, Merry Christmas.
GLORIA: Carmen, Feliz Navidad, hermana.
CARMEN: Feliz Navidad. How are you, darling?
GLORIA: We're fine. What is this? Christmas number 24 and you're still in Los Nueva York?
CARMEN: Ah, yes, it's true. Where do the years go? I'm all aches and pains, I'm telling you. (Spanish spoken). How is Dita(ph)?
GLORIA: Nena, my daughter didn't come home for winter break.
CARMEN: (Spanish spoken)? What do you mean?
GLORIA: Pues, you know, she got into this snowboarding thing, and now, she can't wait for winter. Did you ever hear a Puerto Rican who loves snow that much?
CARMEN: Not this Puerto Rican, uh-uh. So tell me, where is she?
GLORIA: Telluride in Colorado. That's near you, isn't it?
CARMEN: Oh, Telluride.
GLORIA: Oh, Telluride.
CARMEN: Oh, no, mija, that's all the way on the other side of the country.
GLORIA: Oh, hey, and your boys, are they with you?
CARMEN: No, they didn't make it home either. They're all so busy. You know, they work so hard. I can't blame them.
GLORIA: This is the first Christmas I spent alone, too. It's so strange. What are you doing now?
CARMEN: Girl, I need some comfort food. I'm making my sofrito for a nice, hot (Spanish spoken). It's snowing outside. You see? Dita didn't have to go all the way to the other side of the country for snow.
GLORIA: I don't know how you can stand it, all those years in Nueva York with the cold and snow and ice.
CARMEN: Mija, you get used to it like you get used to everything else. Look at me. Panchito died. I've been a widow for 20 years. The boys have graduated from college and have families of their own. You'd think I'd be setting a big table for Noche Buena...
CARMEN: ...but they've made their lives far away now with their American wives.
GLORIA: Yeah. Where is it that (unintelligible) is living now? Cincinasti(ph)?
CARMEN: Cincinnati. And no, he's in Chicago. Remember what Mommy used to say? Girls should be kept close to home, otherwise, you will die alone.
GLORIA: Otherwise, you will die alone. Maybe I shouldn't have let Dita go away to college.
CARMEN: Dita will never let you die alone. She's a good girl.
GLORIA: Well, Mommy certainly didn't die alone. I was there all the way to the end.
CARMEN: You were a wonderful daughter. And I'm sure you've been a wonderful example to Dita.
GLORIA: Yup. And we all know you have been a wonderful example to your sons.
CARMEN: Gloria, it's different with boys. They get married and their wives want to stay close to their families. You know how that is.
GLORIA: Yeah, I know how that is.
CARMEN: Hold on a minute. I need to lower the flames on the gandules.
GLORIA: Things are so different here now. Listen to this one. Last night for Noche Buena, I went to my friend's house. Guess what they served for dinner?
GLORIA: A (Spanish spoken).
CARMEN: A what?
GLORIA: Well, instead of lechon, they took a turkey and they seasoned it with the same spices that you will use for a pig. And then they roasted the pavo like it was a lechon.
CARMEN: Oh, (Spanish spoken). That's how I always prepared my Thanksgiving turkey. But they didn't serve lechon at Noche Buena?
GLORIA: Yeah. Puerto Riquenos, too, are looking for ways to stay healthy.
CARMEN: At Christmas? You can't eat pork one day a year?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GLORIA: Well, all you Nuyoricans take our traditions, mix them with what you've been doing elsewhere and so we get (Spanish spoken).
CARMEN: Do you remember that Mommy always blessed a pan of arroz con gandules, so that she would not run out of food when the parrandas came? That was a miracle pot. You know, it never emptied.
GLORIA: Yeah. But you know, now it's just like in New York. If the parrandas show up at the door, people don't want to let them in.
CARMEN: No. Even you, Gloria? You don't open the door?
GLORIA: No, I just close the shades and pretend I'm asleep. I don't want people in my house making a mess.
CARMEN: Gloria, I don't know who I'm talking to. You were Miss Christmas. How can you turn your back on our traditions? Maybe that's why Dita is snowboarding in Colorado instead of spending Christmas with you.
GLORIA: Excuse me? You're talking about Dita? At least she's bilingual like you and me. You didn't teach your children Spanish.
CARMEN: That's true, Gloria, but it's very different over here.
GLORIA: Oh, I see. Dita can learn English in Puerto Rico but your boys can't learn Spanish in New York.
CARMEN: Gloria, today in Puerto Rico, everybody speaks English and Spanish. That's not the way it is in New York. When I first came here, if I spoke Spanish, I was afraid I would get a ticket. No, I'm serious. If I speak Spanish at my job, I'll get fired.
GLORIA: But you have such a good job as a nurse.
CARMEN: I'm not a nurse. I'm a nurse's aide. And, you know, I'm breaking my back in night school to be an LPN. A licensed practical nurse makes more money and gets benefits.
GLORIA: Well, we grew up hearing that speaking two languages was an advantage. That's why Mommy worked so hard to send us to private school, so we could learn English as well as Spanish.
CARMEN: Private school is expensive, Gloria. At home, I spoke Spanish to la muchachos, so they could at least get some of the language, but that was hard to maintain.
GLORIA: Oh come on, Carmen. I read the papers. They have bilingual education in New York.
CARMEN: In Nueva York, bilingual education is not what it sounds like. It's for children who come from other countries not speaking English. It's not for those here who want to learn another language.
(Soundbite of music)
CARMEN: Tell me that's not a salsa version of "Jingle Bells." Now, I've heard everything.
GLORIA: Yup. (Singing in Spanish).
I'm telling you, Puerto Rico has become gringolandia.
CARMEN: Where is the music coming from? Do you have a TV on?
GLORIA: No, it's a parranda. Just a bunch of kids singing and making a ruckus. Wait a minute, let me close the shades and turn off the lights so that they think I'm not home.
CARMEN: Gloria, don't do that. Open the door and let them in. If everybody closed the door to the parrandas, pretty soon there will be no parrandas.
GLORIA: Yeah, but then we'll have "Jingle Bells," the Santa Claus, (Spanish spoken) and all those lovely things you Nuyoricans bring to the island.
CARMEN: Why do you always say Nuyorican like it's a bad thing? Besides, Gloria, I was born and bred on the island. Since when am I a Nuyorican?
GLORIA: (Spanish spoken) to go to New York.
CARMEN: I didn't escape. I married and followed my husband to where he worked.
GLORIA: Well, yeah, but after he died, you didn't come back.
CARMEN: The boys had just lost their father. How could I take them from the only home they'd ever known?
GLORIA: Ah, I see, I could raise Dita in Puerto Rico, but it wasn't good enough here for your gringo sons.
CARMEN: Do you think that was an easy decision to make? I had no support here. At least you had Mommy. I had no one. It was me alone.
GLORIA: Yeah, I had Mommy, sick Mommy, Mommy in chemo, Mommy who was wasting away and had to be looked after. Oh, yes, I had Mommy. And just like she so often said, keep your daughters close and you will not die alone. You know something? She didn't die alone. And you didn't even come home for her funeral.
CARMEN: Gloria, where is this coming from? I did as much as I could from here. You're hurting me.
GLORIA: You left me in charge of everything. I was a kid, Carmen. And Mommy was sick, and I had to look after her, and the house and the animals and everything. And you kept promising to bring me to New York. And you kept making excuses and you never did it. You can't imagine what that was like for me.
CARMEN: Oh, yes, I can. Don't talk to me about sacrifice. Do you think I had any idea what my life would be like here? I certainly didn't. When I left, I had every intention to bring you with me. (Spanish spoken) would I have thought that four years after leaving la isla, I would be a widow with three little boys. In a country, Gloria, where you don't know your own neighbor, you can't speak the language, and people don't even make eye contact with you because they're afraid you're going to steal from them.
GLORIA: Well, you never talked about that. All we heard was how your little Matthew(ph) was in the chorus, Justin(ph) won the debating team, Bryan(ph) hit a home run in Little League. You kept sending pictures of them all dressed up and copies of their report cards. Not a word about how hard it was. You know something? Mommy took every one of your letters and read them to Dona Lola. It was Carmen this and Carmen that, mi Carmencita. And she pasted pictures of your boys all over the house. When I asked her why she didn't have pictures of Dita, she said, I can see Dita any day. She lives with me.
CARMEN: Gloria, listen to me. Do you think that my life here was anything like I hoped it would be? My life here has been a nightmare. I've had to work like a dog to raise three boys, to make sure they receive the education I wanted for them. And I've had to do it myself without the comfort of a mother, or a sister, or a neighbor across the street, or a shoulder to cry on.
GLORIA: At least you had Panchito those first few years. Everybody loved Panchito. When he died, Mommy said she had lost her favorite child. You know, she lit candles to his memory for months.
CARMEN: Panchito? Gloria, let me tell you something about Panchito. I don't want to talk ill of the dead, but Panchito was a desgraciado. Do you know that four months after he died, a gringa showed up with a picture of a 4-year-old girl with Panchito's eyes, to tell me she was his daughter?
GLORIA: (Speaking Spanish).
CARMEN: Una hija, Gloria, the daughter that we never had. I have never spoken a word of that to anybody. Instead, I swallowed it and kept the shame as my own.
GLORIA: That's incredible. But all men are like that. You remember, Jose(ph) left for New York while I was pregnant with Dita, never so much as said goodbye.
CARMEN: Well, what do you expect from a pig but a grunt?
GLORIA: You know something? Everyone I love leaves for New York and I never see them again.
CARMEN: (Speaking Spanish), Gloria, listen. I've been playing the bolita for 25 years and my number is due, and then I'll send for you.
GLORIA: Don't make any promises you can't keep.
CARMEN: Wow, you just can't let it go, can you? It's always about poor little Gloria. No matter what I do, it's never enough.
GLORIA: No, it is never enough because it isn't enough to want to do something. You have to do it.
CARMEN: You know what? If that's what you have to say to me on Christmas Day, I'm hanging up.
GLORIA: Don't bother.
(Soundbite of music)
GLORIA: Merry Christmas y feliz Navidad.
CARMEN: Feliz Navidad to you, hermana. How are you?
GLORIA: Well, everything's fine. And you and the boys?
CARMEN: Pues, it's been a busy year. Justin's wife is pregnant and Matthew's kids are enjoying their Christmas presents.
GLORIA: Are they with you?
CARMEN: No, Gloria. You know, they wanted to come, but it's so hard and expensive for them to travel with the kids and all.
GLORIA: Well, my Dita is here. We had a very modern Noche Buena.
CARMEN: She's such a good girl. How is she doing? Does she have a boyfriend?
GLORIA: Ay, mija. She's on the cell phone all day with this one, that one, but I never get to meet any of them. Can you imagine that?
CARMEN: When the right one comes along, she'll bring him home.
GLORIA: Well, the latest one, oh, you're not going to believe this. He is a yoga teacher and now she's a vegetarian. And get this one, we had a vegetarian Noche Buena.
CARMEN: (Speaking Spanish). What do you eat on a vegetarian Noche Buena?
GLORIA: Que horror, if you only knew what I had to do, mija, arroz con gandules without ham, pastelles(ph) stuffed with garbanzos instead of meat.
CARMEN: What about the lechon?
GLORIA: You won't believe this one. She made un tofuchon.
CARMEN: (Spanish spoken). Is that animal, vegetable or mineral?
GLORIA: We should've seen it coming when they started making (Spanish spoken).
(Soundbite of laughter)
CARMEN: Hey, I have a surprise for you.
GLORIA: I hate surprises.
CARMEN: No, no, no. Really, this is a good one.
GLORIA: Okay, what?
CARMEN: My number hit the bolita.
CARMEN: Well, it's actually bittersweet. Had it hit a couple of days ago, you would've spent your first Christmas in Nueva York.
GLORIA: Oh, I couldn't have gone anyway. With Dita here for the first time in years...
CARMEN: How about after the holidays? I could send for you. We can go to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, la marqueta?
GLORIA: La famosa marqueta. Hey, maybe I can find a husband there.
(Soundbite of music)
CARMEN: What is that?
GLORIA: Oh, it's an asalto in the truest sense of the word. Dita and her friend are next door bringing Dona Lola (Spanish spoken) parranda.
CARMEN: (Spanish spoken). That old woman will probably have a heart attack. I'm way across the ocean and I feel faint. When did I get so old?
GLORIA: Oh, well, time passes so fast that before you know it, you're looking backwards more than forward.
CARMEN: So Gloria, about my promise...
GLORIA: Well, I don't know if I really want to go to Nueva York.
CARMEN: You've always wanted to see snow.
GLORIA: I've seen it on TV. My daughter lives in it. That's enough for me.
CARMEN: Gloria, I'm going to put it very simply. I really, really miss you. I want to make good on my promise. You can't imagine how terrible I felt after we argued last Christmas.
GLORIA: This is the first time you've apologized for that. I'm sorry I hung up on you.
CARMEN: You had every right to be angry. El destino dumped a lot on your shoulders.
GLORIA: It wasn't el destino, Carmen. Face it. You dumped a lot on me.
CARMEN: I'm sorry. What else do you want me to say? I'm really, really sorry.
GLORIA: That's all I wanted to hear. Why don't you come here?
CARMEN: Go there?
GLORIA: Well, you know, (Spanish spoken) are not over in Puerto Rico until after Three Kings Day. Besides, you deserve a break. These are your winnings. Don't spend them on me. Spend them on yourself.
CARMEN: By seeing you, I am spending the money on myself. But you know, I thought of coming to Puerto Rico but I promised to bring you to New York.
GLORIA: I really, really want to see you.
CARMEN: Well, are you sure it's not going to be too much work for you?
GLORIA: No, Carmen. I want us to have a navidades like the ones we used to have. And I don't want tofuchon. I want lechon arroz con gandules, the parranda with (Spanish spoken) music.
CARMEN: And coquito in mommy's little cups.
GLORIA: Yup. (Spanish spoken) la parranda. I can't understand this Reggeaton thing.
CARMEN: Don't draw the shades, Gloria. Open the door and let them in.
GLORIA: I know. It's not a real parranda.
CARMEN: But it is a real parranda, Gloria, for our kids. Let my niece and her friends come in. And Gloria, tell her that Tia Carmen is coming home.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: Our story called "La Parranda" was written and performed by Esmeralda Santiago and Daisy Martinez. You can find out more about the writers at npr.org. The story was produced by Alison MacAdam with assistance from Bill Deputy. Feliz navidad from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We wish you a merry Christmas.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Each Christmas, All Things Considered presents an original story. This year's offering, "La Parranda" by Esmeralda Santiago and Daisy Martinez, tells the story of two sisters: one in Puerto Rico, one in the United States.
Each Christmas, All Things Considered presents an original story.
This year, two writers have teamed up. Esmeralda Santiago is the author of critically acclaimed memoirs, including When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman.
Daisy Martinez is a writer, a chef and host of the TV show Daisy Cooks!.
Their story is called "La Parranda." Each Christmas season in Puerto Rico, families are visited by parrandas — groups of people singing and playing musical instruments, and gathering to surprise their friends and families at their homes.
It's the Puerto Rican version of caroling, with more eating and drinking, and is also known as an asalto — because at any time, the visitors can appear at the door to asaltar, or surprise, their target.
Families keep traditional foods warm on the stove — and invite the revelers inside to eat.
"La Parranda" is the story of two sisters, Gloria and Carmen. The older, Carmen, married and moved to the United States, leaving Gloria — still a teenager — behind in Puerto Rico.
Each Christmas, the sisters talk on the phone. The story begins in 1986, and is performed by its authors, Santiago and Martinez.