Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas at Midnight, Fireworks, and Panama

And on that dark,  bitter Christmas night, as yet another round of fireworks shattered the still, tropical sky with bright, thunderous explosions . . . 

So begins the closing sentence of my novel Meet Me Under the Ceiba.  Although set in Nicaragua, I knew that the tradition of setting off fireworks as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day extends through the region.

But I never expected anything like what I experienced, along with my wife and guests, in Brisas del Golf: our new neighborhood in Panama City.

It had been eight years since we last spent Christmas in Panama. Every year we have traveled to the United States to spend time with our families in North Carolina and California.  This year, however, for various reasons--including the increasingly exorbitant costs of airfare--we decided to have a quiet celebration in our new home.

It was everything but quiet, however.  Beginning at approximately 11:30 p.m. fireworks began to go off at a steady pace--making conversation in a backyard bohio rather difficult.  By 11:45, the unceasing stream of explosions obliged us to step out to the street to see what was going on.

What we witnessed for the next 30 minutes was astonishing: a firework exhibition in the round as countless neighborhood households set off colorful shows of light, explosions, and smoke. Although we had experienced the traditional barrage of Christmas blasts in Nicaragua, what we saw in Panama was unlike any firework display any of us had ever seen before--an extravagant show with a thunderous torrent of detonations going off in every direction from where we stood.

The almost deafening sounds shook the ground with a force that set off car alarms. Our four cats and one dog sought refuge in dark, secure corners of the bedrooms.  And then we were startled to discover that Hortensia--our turtle and newest member of the family--had left her backyard wading pool to also seek refuge in the house.

Eventually, the celebration waned and Hortensia returned to the water. The cats and dog slowly started to come out of hiding, and everyone was able to bid each other a Merry Christmas, head to the bedrooms, and call it a night.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Magic of Nacimientos

One of my earliest childhood memories is of the elaborate nacimientos my paternal grandmother used to assemble every Christmas in her home in Los Angeles.

The sprawling, elaborate layout took up half of her livingroom, with the fireplace serving as the manger.  As a child, I'd stand in awe before the collection of toy animals, vehicles, miniature houses and people, plants, and countless other decorations that my grandmother lovingly spent days arranging.

Over the years, the memory has acquired a magical quality, as if every creature represented in the Christmas display had been alive, indeed.  Perhaps that's why nacimientos keep appearing in my novels--in my mind, they're the most miraculous symbols of the season.

The article, "Nativity Scenes Serve as Cultural Pride, Tradition," explains the importance that nacimientos play in the cultural continuity of the Latin American diaspora of the United States.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Agents of Change

As a boy in Los Angeles, I was always puzzled that Latinos weren't more prevalent in Southern California's cultural institutions.

As I've written in the past, because of this I almost felt "invisible" while growing up. Times are changing, though. These changes, however, didn't take place without a struggle and the commitment of visionaries.

Here's a terrific article, Sylmar bookshop celebrates Latino culture, about Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore, where I had the privilege of reading two years ago. Latinos throughout the United States owe a debt of gratitude to folks like writer Luis Rodriguez and his wife Trini who through great sacrifices have managed to help make Latinos visible.