(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on December 20, 1995)
Every holiday season, we find ourselves recalling our fondest memories of Christmas past. These are images of family reunions, children playing with new toys, and loved ones we miss.
But for journalists who have the privilege of sharing slices of life with the many people we cover, the memories are not just personal but work-related, yet they are still remembered with fondness.
They make me feel possessed by the spirit of Christmas. During this time, my mind flashes back to the precious moments I've enjoyed covering Latinos in metropolitan New York during the holidays: the smiles on the faces of children at New York's Three Kings Parade, the joy of young Christmas carolers from Passaic, the heartwarming music of Puerto Rican troubadours, the goodwill of Latinos gathering toys for needy children, the amazement of youngsters in the winter of 1988 when they met a Santa who spoke to them in Spanish.
“Como te llamas?” asked the Santa at the Gertz Mall in Jamaica, Queens, and you could see eyes sparkle with surprise and joy.
But this Santa went a lot further. He told Spanish-speaking children the story of the Three Wise Men — Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar — who brought gifts to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. “I tell them that they visited the child Jesus, and they also bring gifts and happiness to the children in Latin America,” said Angelo Rodriguez, who didn't come from the North Pole, but from Puerto Rico.
I called him the Puerto Rican Kris Kringle because to him, being Santa was not a job. It was a joy. He even donated his Santa salary to a children's charity. “This is my opportunity, for a few days every year, to demonstrate my goodwill for the brotherhood of all human beings,” he said. “It comes from my heart. It's beautiful to give happiness — and to receive it.”
A deeply religious man, Rodriguez sat in a mall _ the epitome of the commercialization of Christmas — but spoke about its religious significance. “It's because of him that we share this happiness,” he said. “Without our Redeemer, there would be no Christmas.”
Rodriguez had not even seen Santa until he came from Puerto Rico at the age of 12. He loved being Santa, but he held on to his cultural traditions. This Santa went home on Dec. 24 for the traditional Hispanic Christmas Eve dinner. On Jan. 6, he took the day off from his regular job as a hospital clerk to take his own children to the Three Kings Parade.
“I want my children to follow that tradition,” he told me. “When I was a boy, I believed in the Three Kings so much that the previous night, before I went to sleep, I left grass for them to feed their camels.”
He got into the Santa business by organizing toy drives for needy children. He found Santa jobs on his own because he was rejected by employment agencies because of his Spanish accent. “You don't need a certain accent to speak the language of love,” Rodriguez said.
On another holiday season, I called on Rodriguez for help. I had written a column about a poverty-stricken Puerto Rican grandmother, Maria Rivera, who had sent a letter to me saying that her family was unable to buy gifts for her eight grandchildren that year.
“How do we explain to the younger children that Santa may not be coming to this house this year?” she wrote. “They expect presents like all the other children, and I don't know what to tell them.”
My readers responded with hundreds of toys _ enough to fill a newspaper truck. I got Santa Rodriguez to deliver them on Christmas morning. There were so many gifts that they were distributed to other poor children in lower Manhattan. Seeing their dreams come true is still one of my most cherished holiday memories. It was nice to be Santa's helper.