A Feliz, Summer Navidad in Paraguay

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Photo Illustration By Sara Azoulay /The Observer

By Jorge Rojas
Margaret Lamb /Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize (Creative Non Fiction )Award Co-Winner
Published: April 20, 2011

On Christmas day in 1995 I  sat with my cat, Michi, and my sister, Susana, watching what seemed to be more of a summer barbecue than a Christmas celebration. The sun was gleaming behind the silver Paraguayan clouds onto the brick patio of my grandmother’s house. I sat in the shade, racing toy cars; the only thing I brought with me from home besides clothes (but clothes don’t really count to you when you’re six years old). The patio floor was always a cool place to be, the maroon tiles didn’t catch the sun in the afternoons. The smell of asado engulfed the whole front yard and the sound of the meat sizzling on the charcoal grill seemed to harmonize with my uncle’s laughter. I always wondered how a skinny man could produce such a trombonesque laugh.

The whole day was slow. There were barely any cars that drove by the street. Horse-drawn carts rolled by sporadically and vendors would yell their products in a perfectly repetitive cadence; it was strangely comforting, like a lullaby that called for an afternoon nap. I never understood exactly what they said as they rolled along and all I knew is that I saw piles of unpeeled corn sitting on the cart among the other strange items. We never bought anything from the vendors but I still appreciated them. The wind was soft, gently pressing on blades of grass until they chimed like small chandeliers. The whole day seemed caught in a slow cycle; I sat and waited for something to happen, thinking of why mom wasn’t there.

Home was in Brooklyn, but my sister and I lived in Paraguay. Our house was a three story “dream house” my mother built with money she made from housekeeping and cooking in the states. The house wasn’t fully complete when Susy and I were living in it; my mother couldn’t afford to finish it after we were born. She couldn’t afford to keep us in the states with her either and sent us to live in the house. (The house was never finished. My mother never lived in it either. It was sold a few years ago.) Although my mother couldn’t afford to have us live with her, she always brought us home for the holidays, to spend time in New York with her.

She took us home, to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in early December the year before but we never got to spend Christmas there. That year was the year my mother and my father finally had enough of each other. We left our house (or rather we were kicked out of our house) and forced to stay with my aunt in Queens for a few weeks, until the holidays passed and we were sent away again.

I had a lot of questions that year, mostly about why we weren’t at home and why Dad didn’t want us there. I never got any answers to the questions, but I remember my mother telling me to “not think about all the bad stuff in my head.” I cannot remember much else. I cannot remember what my parents fought about. I cannot remember the seriousness of the argument and how it could be enough to make my father leave us during the only time of the year when he had to see us.

We stayed in Sunnyside, Queens that Christmas and when the holidays passed we were sent back to Paraguay. The holidays passed as fast as the traffic to JFK International Airport did but I didn’t think about it too much. My aunt was there to entertain us with her antics (drinking wine until everything became funny). The next year, I didn’t think of the bad stuff either. I picked up the art of embracing the quiet afternoons, watching flies hop from grass petal to grass petal, letting sun rays bounce through my eyelids and make vibrant dashes of color appear in the sky. The observational technique rubbed off on my personality through the years. I still pause to taste the afternoon breeze in New York sometimes and watch people as they live their frantic lives; I do this for a moment and return to my own.

I woke up from the slow daydream of the afternoon in Paraguay when my cousins, Alejandro and Matias, arrived from their house. Susy, too, was brought to life by their arrival. Alejandro and Matias were not much older than I was, Alejandro was the oldest out of all of us, a year older than Susy; I was the youngest of the group. My grandmother classified us differently, in a rather methodical way. Susy and I were known as “buenos,” the good children, and Alejandro and Matias were known as “cabesudos,” or knuckleheads. They were a typical pair of brothers for the time; independent boys trying to be “badder” than the other boys, openly neglected by their father who had taken a second wife.

The Christmas celebration in Paraguay was generally simple that year. There weren’t too many questions to ask; the adults ate and laughed at my uncle’s jokes while listening to Spanish harp and guitar play on the radio. The children sat anywhere they chose, as long as it wasn’t near the adults table; we were too young to listen to what they were saying. It was an unspoken rule; we would go, take our food, as much as we wanted (even though that amount was always decided by the man with the biggest knife) and retreat until we were called. The four of us did just that, we took our asado and mandioca (boiled yucca, a staple part of the Paraguayan diet, used almost as a substitute for bread or potatoes) and made a holiday of it.

Loli, our grandmother’s mix-breed, a God-knows-what dog, became our source of celebration. She was a big black dog, no real distinguishing features except for a tiny tail, the remnants of a long whip that had to be cut off for purposes I considered pure evil (I still don’t know why she had to have her tail cut and thus consider it simply an act of cruelty). Alejandro dug up a pair of neon green sunglasses and Matias transformed our dog into the world’s most badass dancing canine; she became an instant international sensation. Loli had spectacular choreography done by Matias and the will to succeed in bringing Christmas cheer.

The day’s heat was unforgettable. It’s hard for two kids from Brooklyn to imagine a Christmas where we could sweat under the sun and play in the grass with our cousins and dog. As I sat on that porch, in a place far from home, I began to understand that Christmas is not “Navidad,” just like “Jorge” is not “George.” The two cannot be interchanged and yet they both belong to me. That year, I was transformed into a bridge, a place between two places; a bridge between two continents, two families, two holidays, two languages, two names and two identities.

I chewed my piece of asado and forgot about thinking long enough to enjoy the fact that the dog was wearing sunglasses. Together, the four of us sat and watched as Loli danced our Christmas/Navidad dances for us. Her tongue bounced up and down as she stumbled on her hind legs while Matias held her paws. Loli seemed to be very happy and for more than a single moment, for the span of an afternoon, we all did. Maybe we really were. Together, we, four neglected and innovative children, made our own holiday. Michi, the cat, was there too, watching with disinterest, waiting for the heavy Paraguayan sun to fade away and quiet to return, waiting for things to be normal once again.