It’s Christmas in Latin America, as it is in most everywhere else. As I said once on Facebook, European colonialism is responsible for a lot of contemptible things, but it was also the vehicle for other things the region now takes for granted. In this festive season, I can think of two of them: the Christianity from which the Christmas celebrated in Latin America originates and the Spanish language most of its inhabitants utilize to express the feelings of happiness Christmas awakens. Those feelings are at their most creative through music and song, and I would like to sit back and reminisce.
I have always thought that Christmas songs in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, in comparison to northern latitudes, are steeped in its culture, personality, and warm weather. When I think of Christmas music in the US, I think of church songs or mellow songs meant to be listened to over egg nog on a snowy night. Do not get me wrong here, because I like to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” and Frank Sinatra’s “Mistletoe and Holly” and Nat King Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song” are among my all-time favorite songs. But none of them say “home” to me. I grew up in Puerto Rico, which is not usually mentioned as part of Latin America, but the Christmases I remember from when I was growing up there have a good amount of salsa and merengue music – two rhythms associated with those parts of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean that are always mentioned as part of Latin America. (To be sure, salsa did not originate in the Caribbean, but it incorporates Afro-Cuban rhythms and musical instruments.) For instance, a salsa song I remember from childhood is Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz’s “Aguinaldo navideño,” from one of my father’s records. In later years, thanks to an American friend of mine from Iowa (of all people), I heard Johnny Ventura’s “Salsa pa’ tu lechón,” which I think is the way merengue is supposed to sound like, and “Lechón y bachata” by Chappottín y sus Estrellas. All three songs share a general idea I wholeheartedly get behind: Christmas is here, so let’s grab some food and some booze and have a rollicking good time. I also think that very few Christmas songs from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean come close to the status of bona fide cultural institution like the Sonora Matancera’s “Aguinaldo antillano,” which is a Christmas salutation to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico; and mentions two different local manifestations of the Virgin Mary (the cult of which also crossed the Atlantic into this continent in the 1400s-1500s): Our Lady of Altagracia (DR), and Our Lady of Charity (Cuba). By the way, the lead singer here is none other than a youthful Celia Cruz, before becoming the musical legend she now is.
But not all of my Christmas recollections relate to salsa and merengue music. Another cultural institution, and another song I remember from childhood, is “Mi burrito sabanero,” sung to a traditional Venezuelan rhythm by a kids group called La Rondallita. As a late teenager and young adult, I sang with the University of Puerto Rico Choir during most of my undergrad years, and part of the engagements we were expected to be in were Christmas concerts held close to the end of the semester. The first half of the show was reserved to scholastic repertoire that could include Baroque or early music, works from the Great Composers, and maybe some contemporary classical work. The second half was dedicated to comparatively lighter stuff, which included works from Latin America. I remember three very melodious songs from those wonder years. One is “Esta parrandita” (Venezuela), about a mom, her loving offspring, and the promise to reminisce happy times together. Another one, challenging to learn back then but enjoyable to listen at any time, is “¿Qué le daremos?,” which wonders which traditional Venezuelan foods and crafts will be given to Baby Jesus at the manger. And the third one is “Festejo de Navidad,” where Jesus is born in Lima instead of Bethlehem and Afro-Peruvians are gathering yummy food to give the Holy Infant. Years after leaving the Choir, I had the chance to see it rehearse “Los Reyes Magos,” a movement from Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez’s Navidad nuestra, itself a retelling the story of the Nativity with the help of traditional South American rhythms. In this movement, played to the rhythm of a takirari, the Three Wise Men make it to the manger to leave their presents to Baby Jesus.
The point of the matter is that even though Christianity and Spanish came to the region with the very big help of swords, firearms, and bondage, they also left a mark that gives Latin American Christmas its own delicious flavor. After all, without them, Latin Americans would not be able to say to you, as I am sure they would, Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo (“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”).
And I wish all my readers just the same.