When I was a child, growing up in northern Westchester County in New York State in the late 1950s, there were very few Hispanics in the area. My family had some contact with Spaniards, Portuguese, and Latin Americans who were sprinkled around the county, particularly in the Mt. Kisco area, but these were small groups. Later when I was an adolescent during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was an influx of Puerto Ricans into the area. I remember several students who ended up in my high school, but the real concentration was in the city of Peekskill, NY where my mother worked as an ESL teacher. Many of her students were Puerto Rican.
Today the demographics are very different. The local Puerto Rican population gradually intermarried with other groups or moved to other states like Connecticut and Florida, becoming somewhat "invisible" in the process. During the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of Central Americans and South Americans began arriving in the area. Today when you walk the streets of Peekskill (and most other Hudson River towns), you see Guatemalans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, and Hondurans shopping, working in fast food enterprises, or waiting at paradas (work stops) for day work. Many of the Guatemalans arrived as a result of the 36-year long civil war in Guatemala which left the country's economy devastated. Most of the new arrivals end up working as roofers, landscape workers, fast food employees, cleaners, and nannies.
The new population is immediately identifiable by physical appearance and linguistic traits. They tend to be short, somewhat stocky, with straight black hair, what Puerto Ricans would term indio. In fact, quite a few have Spanish as their second language, being native speakers of some variety of indigenous Native American languages. Their Spanish is softly, almost hesitantly, spoken in contrast to the louder and more nasal cadences of the Puerto Rican Spanish I am used to. Their use of the second person singular pronoun vos for friends and formal usted for almost everybody else sounds old-fashioned and charming . I also love learning the regionally distinctive words they use for common referents like elote instead of maiz for "corn," patojos or cipotes instead of nenes for "small children," and pisto instead of dinero for "money." Even a small difference like saying mango (with the stress on the "a" instead of mangó (with the stress on the "o" as it's done in Puerto Rico make my linguist's antennae go on alert. I just love linguistic diversity!
I was shopping in Marshall's and overheard a conversation among three Guatemalan men while waiting on line to pay. The first two were clearly close friends (using vos to address one another and making reference to shared activities). A third man approached them, and everybody switched to usted as the pronoun of address, indicating a change to mere acquaintance or stranger discourse. The newcomer asked them what they were going to do after they paid for their purchases. The two men asserted that they had nothing special planned, upon which he asked if they could spare him a few minutes to talk about something that was of great importance to him and would be to them, too. They nodded assent politely, and he went outside to wait for them. The first man then turned to the second and asked what he thought the man wanted to talk to them about, and the second guy shrugged and said "Probablemente nos quiere hablar de Cristo" ("He probably wants to talk to us about Christ.). The second shrugged agreebly, and they fell silent. I was left wondering why that topic had been seized upon as the most likely instead of, say, a possible job or a community program.
A cultural mystery for another day.
As usual, I flew from PR to NY for Christmas break on JetBlue. In the past, American Airlines had a virtual monopoly over flights from PR, but in recent years, JetBlue has made serious inroads into the PR market. I like this airline because of the greater legroom and the individual video monitors at each seat. I also enjoy their quirky snack service with all sorts of unusual munchies like blue potato chips, animal crackers, popcorn chips, etc., carried in wicker baskets by the cheerful flight attendants. No serving carts to block the aisles. Totally individualized service of unlimited beverages and snacks. You feel as if you're on a flying picnic excursion.
My flight was remarkably uneventful this year, except that when we landed at JFK there was only a weak smattering of applause from the Puerto Ricans on board. Generally, Puerto Ricans applaud enthusiastically when planes land, as if to salute the captain (and the fates) for delivering them safely. The relative quiet was so noticeable that one of the flight attendants, who was Puerto Rican, chided the passengers and requested that they try again. Then everybody applauded effusively, laughing at their violation of their own cultural code. Tourists on board looked around in some confusion.
To my relief, it was warm in NYC when I arrived (59 degrees Farenheit), so I didn't go through the usual physical shock of the cold. Although I was raised in NYS and loved winters as a child, never coming inside until my lips were blue and my teeth were chattering with cold, I now find that I can't tolerate temperatures lower than 60 degrees. The weather in PR is very constant, always around 84-85 degrees with some days in the 90s during late July and August and lows in the winter months in the 70s. Only in the mountain regions do the temperatures ever go below 60 degrees, and not very often at that. Aibonito reportedly holds the record for the lowest temperatures on the island--40 degrees Farenheit on March 9, 1911.
I took the bus from JFK to Grand Central Station and was immediately plunged into a frenzy of commuters and shoppers thronging the holiday crafts fair in the entry hall to the station. Stand after stand of exquisite handicrafts drew my attention, but the prices were so prohibitively high that I just satisfied myself with admiring and making mental notes for future crafts projects to do myself. One stand in particular made me laugh. It was called Beaux Arfs and was dedicated to dog-themed items. Another unusual stand featured items made of sea glass. So lovely!
Once I had my fill of the crafts, I ventured into the main hall, trying in vain to match the hyperactive pace of the commuters who streamed from all directions toward the ticket booths and train gates. Accustomed as I now am to the leisurely walking pace of Puerto Ricans on the island, I found it hard to manage, and several times I was pushed from behind by impatient commuters running for their trains. I got my ticket and found my own train and settled in for the ride up the Hudson River, always one of my favorite parts of returning to NYS.
As would be expected a couple of days before Christmas, the MetroNorth train was filled to capacity, but good humor abounded. The most entertaining part of the whole trip was the head conductor who explained repeatedly over the loudspeaker that it was important to buy tickets before boarding the train to avoid a dramatic increase in price. The weary peak-hour commuters (most of whom carry monthly passes) barely yawned in response. Then he caught everyone's attention by waxing lyrical about nefarious people who persisted in talking on cell phones on board or filling seats with coats and bags to block other passengers from access. He finished his harangue by invoking the Golden Rule and urging us all to be kind to our fellow human beings. I approved totally of his speech and thought briefly of starting a new tradition of applauding the conductor.
There are other aspects of shopping in Puerto Rico that strike the newcomer as odd in the beginning.
First of all, there is no culture of returning shopping carts to the store or to a corral. Yes, corrals do exist in some shopping centers, but they are generally ignored. People just leave their carts wherever they please, complicating the parking situation for everyone else. Periodically, a supermarket employee emerges to gather up all the carts, but it is not unusual to arrive at a supermarket and find no carts available since they’re all scattered around the lot.
Second, while “going green” is beginning to make inroads in Puerto Rico, most people still prefer to take their shopping in plastic bags which they then recycle as garbage bags. Since the heat of the tropics makes wrapping and double-wrapping garbage necessary to keep down the stench of rapidly decaying wastes, this makes a lot of sense. Everybody keeps a stash of these plastic bags somewhere in their home, ready for garbage and other purposes. Relatively few people buy large garbage bags unless they’re having a party.
Third, coffee is often locked up since it is apparently a favorite item for shoplifters on the island. There are several brands of excellent coffee produced in PR, like Yaucono (my absolute favorite), Café Crema, Café Rico, and Alto Grande (the most expensive). Very few people prepare coffees from other locations, although you will see limited supplies in supermarkets, particularly of the instant variety. Puerto Ricans in the metro area have recently developed a liking for coffee bars like Starbucks, but it’s more for the ambience and the wi-fi than for the coffee, which is way over-priced in comparison to local coffee. When Border’s Bookstore was in business, their coffee bar served Yaucono coffee. (Yaucono Gold is marketed outside of PR as a luxury coffee, but it’s basically what is served every morning all over the island and available for about $4 for a 14-oz. sack.)
Shopping in Puerto Rico is very similar to shopping in New York with a few notable exceptions. Depending on the supermarket, there may be varying amounts of U.S. brands available. For example, Pueblo Supermarkets tend to rely heavily on U.S. brands for their inventory, so you can probably find any product you were used to using in the States there. On the other hand, Grande and Econo Supermarkets tend to get more local products and products from Spain, Colombia, and Costa Rica, and may be missing some U.S. brands. There will also be some U.S. products that you've probably never seen in your supermarket back home in the U.S., for example, tiny pullet eggs sold loose and marked with "U.S. Dairy" inked onto each egg, or large bags of no-name frozen chicken. Both of these are sub-standard, government surplus type products which are sold much more cheaply than the excellent Puerto Rican fresh products in an attempt to undercut the local market. These are to be avoided at all costs.
Superficially, the supermarkets look just like their U.S. counterparts in terms of layout and display techniques. However, the produce area will immediately impress the newcomer with the piles of gnarled root vegetables (e.g. yuca, malanga, yautía, ñame, etc.) which are staples in the Puerto Rican diet. Large green and orange squashes or pumpkins are very common, since they are often used in the preparation of stewed red, white, or black beans (habichuelas) which are present at every meal. Fresh green vegetables like broccoli, green beans, spinach, and asparagus are generally also available, but much more expensive, less popular, and often consumed in canned rather than fresh forms. Many of my students at the UPR rarely eat any of these.
The most common green vegetable is lettuce, either the iceberg variety from the U.S. or an exceptionally tender and tasty leafy variety grown on the island, generally accompanied by a sliced tomato (often pink rather than red). Corn on the cob is sometimes available, almost always imported, but most people eat their corn from a can unless they go to Church's Chicken and order a mazorca. Onions, garlic, and peppers are grown locally and absolutely essential for the preparation of the local condiment known as sofrito.
In the fruit section, tropical selections abound (papayas, mangos, pineapples, coconuts, oranges, green lemons, etc.). The large plantains (plátanos), available both green and ripe (the latter referred to as maduros or amarillos) and the tiny finger bananas (guineos niños) may be familiar to Americans from large urban centers, but odd to those from smaller towns. Strawberries, blue berries, and raspberries are available at very high cost, since they are all imported, as are the apples, pears, plums, and peaches (cheaper but often relatively tasteless since they are picked green and shipped to the island before ripening). You are much better off eating locally grown fruits which are quite reasonable in price and totally delicious!
The meat section is full of revelations. Again, this varies depending on the supermarket. Those supermarkets stocking more local products will sell rabbit and goat, in addition to the ever-present local chicken, imported beef, and pork from a variety of sources. Pork is the centerpiece of many Puerto Rican dishes, in particular, pork chops (chuletas), pigs knuckles (patas de cerdo), pork roast (pernil), suckling pig (lechón) and pork sausages of various types, including a nearly white sausage much like bratwurst called butifarra and a nearly black and heavily garliced blood sausage called morcilla. Bright orange Spanish chorizo
sausage may also be available. In addition they will often offer such delicacies as cow intestines for preparing the dish known as cuajito, cow brains for sesos, pig intestines and connective tissue for crunchy fried chittlings (chicharrones volaos), and organ meats like pig liver, kidneys, and heart for gandinga. These dishes tend to be more popular in the rural areas and among older people. Most of my students turn their noses up at them.
After having read the last two posts to this blog, you may be thinking: why not just ride a bicycle or walk?
Unfortunately, Puerto Rico is an auto culture. Long stretches of major roadways are covered with car dealerships, mechanics shops, and automotive parts stores. Virtually every individual yearns to have a car, and in middle class families the norm is one car per adult. Working class and poor families make do with one car, and it is not unusual to see an old battered wreck careening down the road with more rust remover and primer than paint, packed to bursting with family members. No matter that this car probably wouldn't pass a legitimate inspection--it's a car and it goes, therefore one has ascended the social ladder.
The few bicycles one sees in Puerto Rico are in the hands of three types of people: children, street vendors/homeless people, and the occasional sportsperson. Children ride bicycles in cul de sacs, parks, and dead end streets. Street vendors and homeless people load up their bikes with wares or possessions, and it is not unusual to see two such individuals riding one sorry-looking bike through bumper to bumper traffic, risking life and limb at every turn. Professional or competititve bicyclists are more common in the tourist areas and are generally foreigners. There are few bike paths or special accomodations prepared for cyclists. Riding a bicyle in car traffic is extremely dangerous and not recommended. I remember witnessing one accident between a cyclist and a car, and the cyclist went flying through the air upon impact. It was just short of miraculous that he was only bruised and scraped and didn't die on the spot.
Another obstacle to bike riding on the island is the deplorable condition of the roads themselves. Potholes and construction debris that cause flat tires and broken axles for autos can create truly hazardous situations for bikes. I remember when my son was a Boy Scout and rode in a bicycle caravan all the way from Trujillo Alto to Fajardo, he had three flats on the way there, as did most of his comrades.
What about walking? Well, this too can be a dangerous enterprise. Sidewalks are often poorly maintained and uncomfortable to walk on. Diagonal parking is common in many commercial strips, making the life of the pedestrian even tricker as cars slide in and out of slots, stopping traffic as they make their maneuvers. Given the scarcity of parking spaces in many areas, drivers improvise spots on sidewalks and across driveways, and double-parking is an art form. The smart driver avoids the right lane like the plague because of the tangle of misparked vehicles and darting pedestrians. Most restaurants along these stretches have valet parking, not because they are luxurious, but because otherwise the clientele can't find parking. In the hands of the valet parkers, the parking lots become sardine cans packed to the gills with cars, artistically and geometrically arranged like some huge automotive puzzle. One advantage that Puerto Rico has over New York is the cheap prices charged in the parking lots. Generally, one pays about 75 cents an hour to park. In the Milla de Oro (Golden Mile) where all the banks and insurance companies are located in Hato Rey, prices may reach a dollar or more. This is in striking contrast to the $11.00-$40 an hour parking prices of New York City where it can cost you more to park your car for an evening than to buy an opera or ballet ticket.
Another aspect of walking that must be considered is the heat and extremely powerful sun rays. Being so close to the equator, Puerto Rico has 12 hours of sunlight each day, and temperatures averaging from 73 degrees in winter to 90 degrees in summer. The sun is almost directly overhead at all times, and getting burned or dehydrated is a genuine danger. No one walks in the midday sun unless they have to. Air conditioning is highly valued and found in nearly all public spaces, cranked up to a ridiculously cold level. I have to wear a jacket at work every day due to the polar conditions created by the university's central air conditioning, while outside I can fry eggs on the sidewalk.
For those who lack excitement in their daily lives, I would recommend driving on the highways of Puerto Rico. Nowhere else will you encounter more sheer bravado and knuckle-whitening stunts than navigating the expressways of this island paradise.
There are a few things you need to understand first. Puerto Rico is approximately 35 x 100 miles across. This sounds like nothing, especially when you're used to driving the long stretches of US highways; however, the entire center of the island is packed with mountains (La Cordillera Central) and treacherous winding local roads which take forever to drive. Besides making you completely nauseous as you go round and round interminable curves, these roads have the added charms of unexpected encounters with horses, cows, and other animals, few or no retaining walls or dividers to protect you from oncoming traffic or falls off steep precipices, and irregular pavements (read potholes).
As a result, anyone who wants to go somewhere that is not directly on the coastline takes one of the several expressways that have been carved out of the mountains. By now, you've probably gotten the idea that driving in Puerto Rico is a creative enterprise. One has to be ready for every kind of surprise. However, driving on the highways bumps the creativity up a notch. Let me give you some examples.
Puerto Rico is a curious mixture of English and metric systems of measurement. Gasoline is sold by the liter. Highways are marked in kilometers and hectometers, yet highway signs tell you how many miles it is to your destination. These signs warn you in advance of your exits, yet when the actual exit appears, all it says is Salida (Exit). If you haven't been paying attention, you have no way of knowing if it is the correct exit. Since many people are distracted by cell phones (handsfree operation is not mandated here), CD players, crying children, and/or animated conversations, they often miss exits. Rather than continue to the next exit, a typical maneuver is to pull into the emergency lane and back up to the missed exit. This can be very disconcerting when you're coming along at top speed in the right lane only to see a car approaching in reverse. A variant on this maneuver is the U-turn across the esplanade, a popular strategy among SUV drivers and something that never fails to startle me when I'm coming along in the left lane.
Highway driving is further complicated by the presence of grazing animals along the roadside, animals which occasionally stray into the lanes. Another fun feature is the toll plazas which accept pennies, so you may have the good fortune to be behind someone who is emptying their piggy bank to pay the toll.
Speeding is the norm at all times. Some of my students tell me that they routinely make it from San Juan to Mayaguez, on the opposite side of the island, in 2 hours, a trip that never takes me less than 3 hours. All of my students can recount stories of being pulled over for speeding; however, the fact is that the odds favor their getting away with speeding since there are relatively few highway cops, and most of those ignore all but the most flagrant violations.
I started driving in New York State when I was 16 years old. That means I've been behind the wheel for more than 40 years now and have roamed across most regions of the US and good chunks of Canada. I've driven on unpaved back roads, sleek expressways, and crowded metropolitan streets in all sorts of bad weather--freezing rain, snow, tornado winds, hurricane deluges, and hail. I thought I'd seen it all until I moved to Puerto Rico.
For the first month after our car arrived, I was too unsure of myself to drive, so I let my husband (who is Puerto Rican and knows all the roads) take the wheel. This allowed me to pay close attention to the routes we took and the driving behavior of the island residents. Every day we witnessed at least one accident, generally at intersections due to the prevalent custom of running lights. Every day we also witnessed at least 20 near accidents due to the equally prevalent customs of not signalling lane changes or turns, drinking while under the influence of alcohol, and stopping suddenly to avoid hitting pedestrians who cross major roads unpredictably. It was almost enough to keep me away from driving permanently.
However, the realities of modern life intervened, and as our family schedule became more complicated, driving was an absolute necessity. So I swallowed my fear and joined the endless tapones (traffic jams) that grace every morning in the San Juan metro area.
Now I was no stranger to traffic jams, having first studied and then lived in New York City for a total of 9 years. Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican tapon has its own peculiar flavor. Let me give you some idea of a typical morning drive at that time for me. At 6:45 am, as I would come down the hill from where I lived in Trujillo Alto (just three miles away from the UPR campus), I would see the tapon beginning to form on our local road. Generally, if it was no later than 6:45, there would be only a few cars lining up to get on the Trujillo Alto Expressway, but if I ran late and arrived between 7 and 8:30 am, then I would be in for an excruciating wait. At 6:45 am, people would be fairly cordial and let me into the line. After that point, as the rush hour built up, people would become increasingly hostile, and one would have to bravear or take the bull by the horns and charge right in, risking life, limb, and auto body work. Once I was on the 3-lane Expressway (expanded to four since everyone would drive in the emergency lane), the real crawl would begin.
A note about the Trujillo Alto Expressway (and it's generalizeable to many other major roads in Puerto Rico): Since housing development all along the Expressway has been unfettered by even the most rudimentary notions of urban planning, every scrap of buildable land has multi-family condominiums planted on it. This means that hundreds of cars emerge from each of these structures (at least 2 per family) and funnel into the Expressway. While clearly unworkable on its own, this system really breaks down when police officers are assigned to "direct" traffic during the rush hour. Then, instead of being able to count on a steady progression with each change of the traffic lights, commuters can end up waiting through several light changes while law enforcement officials permit secondary traffic from other directions to go through. The officers persist in their misguided activity despite regular blasts from car and truck horns, liberal and creative cursing, and vivid hand-gesturing directed at them by the citizenry.
Things have improved greatly in the past few years with the construction of the elevado (overpass) which allows me to avoid the horrendous intersection of the Trujillo Alto Expressway and 65th Infantry Avenue. But from 1986 to 2009, I would inch along, watching school children walking along the side of the Expressway loaded down with book bags and beating me to each intersection, and I would study the other drivers. Anthropology in action!
Peeking into neighboring cars during a tapon the San Juan metro area can reveal extremely interesting behavior. Most common is the sight of women drivers doing their complete toilette in the car, including the removal of hair rollers, application of makeup, and even eyebrow tweezing. Men are not far behind with hair combing, breakfast consumption, newspaper reading, and even shaving with electric razors. Children are often put into the car in the morning still dressed in pajamas, and one can witness them eating cereal, putting on their school uniforms, getting their hair braided, and completing unfinished homework. Other passengers may opt for the less active but more satisfying pursuit of forty winks, and it's truly disconcerting to be stuck beside the same car for long stretches staring at the wide-open mouth of a snoring occupant.
Add to this show the presence of street vendors, pamphleteers, and beggers who meander through the stopped cars pushing their various wares. You can buy water, donuts, fruits, vegetables, posters, flowers, bread, cakes, and even land crabs depending on the hour, collect free samples and ads for new products, and contribute to your favorite charity or homeless person, all on the way to work. The beggers range from well-dressed nurses soliciting donations for the Red Cross, to AIDS-stricken youths vainly trying to wash windshields for loose change, to a wide variety of handicapped individuals in wheelchairs or on crutches, displaying their infirmities in order to provoke sympathy and generosity on the part of the passing drivers.
If you are fortunate enough to experience movement during the tapon, then you will probably also experience the famous corte de pastelillo (literally the arc made when a cook cuts dough to make a turnover but used locally to describe when someone cuts you off in traffic through a dramatic and unannounced lane change). If you haven't woken up by then, this maneuver will definitely get your blood pulsing, if it doesn't cause an outright heart attack.
To make a long story short, my 3 mile journey to work would take on the average 35 minutes if I left early and would sometimes even last an hour on particularly bad days. Compare this to the same route on Sunday which takes 12 minutes (and the new overpass which has cut the trip down to 10 minutes), and you can see why I used to listen to audiobooks in the car every morning to keep from exploding.
Before I left New York in December of 1986, I had to ship our car to Puerto Rico. This involved going to the piers in New Jersey, so I drove out there imagining that it would be simple enough to get back home to the small town where we lived in the Hudson Valley of New York. The transaction itself was not too difficult, and after filing all the appropriate papers and paying for the shipping, I found myself out on the street looking for a bus stop to get to the PATH train to New York City.
Easier said than done. The neighborhood was industrial and full of warehouses. There were no people walking on the streets to ask. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and I started getting nervous about the coming dusk. Suddenly, I noticed a ramshackle red pick-up truck that was leaving the pier area. Inside were an elderly Puerto Rican man and his teenage grandson. We had exchanged smiles at the shipping office, where they too were shipping a car to the island. They stopped the pick-up and gestured to me to hop in. I was apprehensive, but I had no other alternative that seemed even remotely safe, and I didn’t want to get caught in the dark in that inhospitable area. So I squeezed into the front seat with the two of them and asked them to drop me off at the nearest bus stop.
As we drove along to the tune of Puerto Rican Christmas music on the radio (WKAQ), they asked me where I was moving to in Puerto Rico. When I said Río Piedras, it turned out that they had family in that town. They gave me some tips about picking up the car once it arrived in Puerto Rico and talked about places on the island that I should visit. When we neared the first bus stop several miles down the road, they insisted that it wouldn’t be safe for me to wait there since the buses came very infrequently, so we proceeded on to the PATH train station. There I got out after a chorus of “Qué Dios te bendiga” (May God bless you.) and caught the next train to Penn Station in Manhattan. From there I took the subway to Grand Central Station at 42nd Street where I got the Metronorth train upstate to my parents’ home.
Three weeks later, my husband and I tried to recover our car from the piers of San Juan only to discover that while it had indeed arrived safely, it could not be moved until after the holidays. We resigned ourselves to using carros publicos(public vans that pick up people on more or less fixed routes for 50 cents) or AMA (Autoridad Metropolitana de Autobuses) buses (then 25 cents). Not too comfortable but a good way to meet people. We did all our shopping on foot in local businesses, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced us to learn all the local streets and get a feel for local prices and what constituted a good deal.
Finally, in mid-January, we retrieved our car after paying some mysterious arbitrios (taxes), and we were ready to roll.
My husband moved to Puerto Rico first. He took a job at the University of Puerto Rico in August of 1986 and found an apartment for us to live in. My son and I stayed behind in New York so I could finish a job I had at Teachers College and so we could gradually pack up the house and arrange for the move. The process was pretty exhausting since we had tons of books, and I also had to arrange for shipping the car. (More about that later.)
Finally in mid-December of 1986, my son and I moved to Puerto Rico and joined my husband in our new apartment. The adventure had begun!
Unfortunately, the adventure was a bumpy one. Our apartment (a fourth floor walk-up near the university) had been previously used by an artist who had dropped paint all over the floors. There were leaks in the ceiling, broken tiles in the bathroom, no screens in the windows, and no electricity in most of the rooms. The furniture took several weeks to arrive, and the car even longer because of the Christmas season.
In Puerto Rico, Christmas celebrations begin immediately after Thanksgiving Day when the Christmas tree is set up in most homes. Decorations pop up everywhere, as do the parties. As Christmas approaches, some people (particularly in the countryside) participate in parrandas which are somewhat like old-fashioned U.S. caroling parties but much more boisterous and lively with percussion instruments like the guiro (a grooved gourd that is scraped with a metal fork), thepandareta (tambourine), the clave (a wooden cylinder on a handle that is hit with a small mallet), and sometimes bongos or other small drums.
If a parranda arrives at your house, you are supposed to invite the people in and serve them little treats and a creamy eggnog made with coconut milk called coquito. People sing aguinaldos (carols) as well as plenas(traditional folk songs with a complex rhyme and rhythmic structure).
Puerto Rican Christmas foods include: lechon (roast pork), turkey (with Caribbean seasonings and plantain or meat stuffing), pasteles (ground yucca or plantain made into a bundle with bits of pork, chicken, or other meats, olives and sometimes raisins in the center, all wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled until firm), flan (egg custard which is available in vanilla, cream cheese, sweet potato, and other flavors), and turron (almond nougat candy available in many different flavors and textures).
While all of this was delicious, needless to say, it was quite different from what I was accustomed to in New York, and I remember that I spent many evenings feeling very depressed and missing the sounds and tastes of my childhood Christmases. (I do not recommend moving to a new culture at Christmas time.)
Our move was further complicated by the extended nature of the Christmas season in Puerto Rico. As I said, it all kicks off with Thanksgiving. Then there's Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Navidad (Christmas Day), la Despedida del Ano (New Year's Eve), followed by el Dia de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), topped off with 8 more days of celebrating referred to as Las Octavitas. As a result, it is very difficult to get business accomplished between Thanksgiving and mid-January on the island.