(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on December, 22, 1995)
Other memorable times may fade with the years, but the images of Nochebuena, the traditional Hispanic Christmas Eve family reunions, remain vivid in my mind. For my family, this is not only the night to give thanks for our blessings — as it is for most Latinos — but to dig into our roots.
Every Nochebuena, we take a few moments to relive the events that influenced our lives during other Nochebuenas. During this journey through our good or difficult times, there are many laughs and tearful moments. But it's still our most cherished night of the year.
During dinner, the discussion inevitably takes us back to other Christmases: the ones when we mourned because some family members were no longer with us, and the ones when we celebrated because new additions to la familia were sitting on our laps.
Coming from Cuba, for my family there were many Nochebuenas that were affected by politics. There was a year when a close family friend, engaged to marry my aunt, was off to war fighting with Fidel Castro's guerrillas against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. And the year when we learned that — so as not to divulge sensitive information — he had killed himself in prison after having been caught and tortured by Batista's goons. His name was Osvaldo Herrera and many years later he was recognized as one of the martyrs of the Cuban revolution.
I was only a kid then, but I remember how deeply saddened we felt on that Nochebuena. During the holidays of 1958, the Cuban revolution was reaching its explosive climax. For most Cubans, that was probably the most memorable holiday season, because on New Year's Day 1959, our lives were transformed forever. The revolution had triumphed, ending the bloody civil war and giving most Cubans hope that we were beginning a new era of freedom and prosperity.
We didn't know it then, but Cuban Christmases would never be quite the same. By the following Nochebuena, the joy of peace had vanished and our hopes and aspirations were torn apart. Fear of political persecution was forcing many to flee from the island, leaving their homes and loved ones behind. That exodus has continued for 37 years, scattering more than 1 million Cubans all over the world, including many who settled in North Jersey. Every Nochebuena, in most exile homes, someone will raise a glass and offer a toast: “May we celebrate the next Nochebuena in a free Cuba.”
During the first few years of the Castro regime, the spirit of Christmas was gradually diminished by the atheist, Communist government. Every Nochebuena in this country, my family takes pride remembering how we managed to maintain our spirit, especially during the holiday season when Christmas trees were no longer imported from the United States. My father hired a man to climb a tall pine tree and cut off the top eight feet. We still remember it as our most beautiful tree. The thought of it brings smiles to our faces on other Nochebuenas.
But when we really get nostalgic, we go back to the Christmas Eve dinner of 1961 _ our last Nochebuena in Cuba. My older brother Beni was not with us. He was only 17 years old, but he had gone to Miami to obtain U.S. visas for the rest of the family. Dinner was delayed that night. No one could eat until we got a call from my brother. When we finally spoke to him, he told us that he was on his way to have the Nochebuena dinner at the home of a friend.
It was a very emotional conversation. We had never been separated on Nochebuena. I was only 11 years old, but I can clearly remember my mother crying and trying to hide her sentiments from my brother. When we finally hung up the telephone, we had lost our appetites.
Years later, on another Nochebuena when we were all reunited in Miami, my brother admitted that he spent that Christmas Eve of 1961 washing dishes in the kitchen of a Miami Beach hotel — and that he ate only a hamburger. He had lied about the dinner invitation because he didn't want us to worry about him. We still remember that Nochebuena with tears in our eyes.
For many years, Christmas in Miami wasn't the same as the ones I remember in my little hometown of La Salud, where I grew up believing in the generosity of the Three Wise Men, who brought me gifts on the Jan. 6 Feast of the Epiphany.
In Miami in the 1960s, many reunions lacked several relatives who were still in Cuba. When we were all reunited, we celebrated the holidays like we did in La Salud — eating a roast pork meal and telling stories about other Nochebuenas.
We would always give thanks for the privilege of living in a country where we were free to celebrate Christmas, especially since back in Cuba the government had abolished the holiday season since 1969. That's when Castro branded Christmas “a foreign import” and determined that Christ's birthday would be just another working day.
However, the joy of the holidays was short-lived. Within a few years, some relatives were again missing from the dinner table. My father and grandfather died in exile, never realizing the wishful toast they had offered during other Nochebuenas.