The greatest gift: familia

The spirit of Christmas

December 25, 2003|By Michael Alvear

IWAS 9 years old when I experienced my first American Christmas. I was at a loss to describe my reaction because my English wasn't very good. When I became completely fluent, I realized the word I was looking for was "bummer."

That's because I had the disadvantage of experiencing eight Latino Christmases before celebrating my ninth with an Anglo one.

A Latino Christmas is a wonder to behold. If American families are nuclear, then Latino families are electromagnetic, pulling every relative, no matter how distant, into their orbit.

Latin children are constantly surrounded by explosively extended families - grandparents who live downstairs, cousins who live across the street, uncles who live to see you. It's an armory of love and excitement that few American children experience. Especially at Christmas.

My father is South American, my mother American. His side of the family outnumbered my mother's side by 10-to-1.

For the first eight years of my life, we lived in Quito, Ecuador, a country with inflation rates so high that banks routinely advertised 33 percent interest rates on passbook savings accounts.

But what Quito lacked in financial stability it made up for in familial warmth. My Ecuadorian family was big, loud and boisterous. It seemed as if there wasn't a grandparent or aunt who lived more than a few blocks away. Cousins were best friends, and meals were at least a 12-seat affair, with someone always yapping at me for drinking all the Coke.

In America, my family was small and spread out on both coasts. I saw my cousins every couple of years, and my mom always had to remind me of their names.

I experienced my first American Christmas the year my parents divorced. Mom packed us up and we moved from Ecuador for good, settling smack dab in the middle of the international Mason-Dixon Line: Miami.

It was odd sitting around the tree with just my immediate family. In Ecuador, the doorbell would constantly ring with this part of the family or that, with this cousin's friend or that uncle's uncle. When it rang, my sisters shrieked with excitement while my brother and I rubbed our hands together. The doorbell meant only one thing: more presents.

In America, nobody rang our door. Confused, my brother turned to me and said, "Donde esta toda la gente?" ("Where is everyone?"). That year, Feliz Navidad turned into Merry Christmas. The sentiment was the same, but the volume on the stereo wasn't.

I missed my Latin family terribly and wanted to go back. I remember thinking, "What good are all these presents if there isn't anybody to show them to?"

Twenty years passed before I set foot in Ecuador again. My visits are wonderful, but America is my home now, a home I wouldn't trade for all the booty in Santa's sleigh.

I am part American and part Ecuadorian. I guess I'm bi-countried. Meaning, I'm attracted to presents from both continents. The ones under American trees are better. They're bigger and shinier, and the brag factor is higher. "What'd you get me?" is the most important question in a child's life, and no one answers it better than this country.

Yet, every January, my American friends and family suffer from post-traumatic mall syndrome, a condition caused by the belief that shopping for the right gift is more important than sharing yourself with the right people.

Funny, I can't recall a single gift I received as a child, from either continent. What I remember is every uncle and aunt and cousin who showed up at the door.

Michael Alvear is the author of Men Are Pigs, But We Love Bacon (Kensington Books, 2003).

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