24 December, 2009

Miami's multicultural Santa Claus

by Jorge Reyes

I still remember how around this time of the year both my parents would dutifully take me to a nearby toystore so that I could tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas and then have my picture taken with him.  I'm sure most of us cherish these pictures of long-ago like religious relics.

The best Christmas gift I recall getting from Santa was an Atari 5200 videogame system. I was the envy of the neighborhood's kids. With time and the South Florida humidity, I'm still surprised to see how well some of these pictures have withstood the merciless test of time. (Of course, I'd like to think that it hasn't been that long ago, though the last picture I was forced to take with dear Santa must have been more than twenty-five years ago.)

But these are just cute childhood memories and images, if such they ever were, and most of which I haven't see fit to reminisce for decades.

Out of simple curiosity and nostalgia, not too long I drove by the same toystore which is located in one of those gray, squat shopping centers in the City of Hialeah, where I grew up.  To my surprise, the toystore was still open for business, though the same cannot be said of its next door competitor Zayre- the local Walmart of its day. Does anyone remember Zayre or am I the only one living in the past? 

Hialeah, of course, is a sort of mecca for Cuban immigrants who started to arrive in the early 1960's for what they tought would be a short-term exile vacation, but who have overstayed their visit for more than fifty years now. For the record, Hialeah has a near 90% Hispanic population.

Very little has changed about the toystore or about the traditional Santa Claus picture. Parents were still actively engaged in having their kids sit on Santa's lap, whisper in his ears what they wanted for Christmas, and then perhaps go home for the hoped-for gifts. What has changed, to my amazement, was that this particular Santa had an accent of sorts “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas” sounded more like the accented Spanglish language spoken in Hialeah, and in many other areas of Southern Florida. 

Oh yes, this Santa had rouged-rosy cheeks, a fake white beard like cotton, and was dressed in his red fatigues, though he wasn't as corpulent or as tall as the iconic one I remembered in this same spot. No matter, kids and their parents were as excited to go through this holiday ritual as if their lives, and their prospects for a new year, depended on it. Most likely after the ritualized picture-taking, they went home and started to cook one of their roast pigs richly marinated with salsa criolla, for an evening of Latin festivities-- with a Santa swinging to the hips with merengue music as well.

So much has changed and so little at the same time.  What has changed is the way we seem to tolerate a multicultural society that, surprisingly, gets along so well. Drive to Little Haiti near Biscayne Boulevard and you probably will find an equally engaging black Santa Claus speaking Creole. As never before, South Florida seems to be aware of a cultural diversity that, at least in my childhood days waiting in line for Santa, would have been an embarrassment to see.

As an immigrant, long gone are the days when we spoke with references to assimilation rather than as we speak these days of diversity. To be an assimilated Cuban boy was what my family taught me.  Diversity stayed at home, in the privacy of family get-togethers.  Back in the old days, to be an immigrant was felt as much within the family structure as in the cultural environment, which made forgetting the past more difficult but an inevitable part of life lest one would go crazy.  That mentality, of course, is no longer applicable and I'm ashamed to admit I still think in those terms. That's why I don't know how to dance salsa or merengue to this day.  Damn, I never thought I'd say this: I'm old school!

Though I seem to be stuck in an old view, institutions seem to have surpassed me. 

The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas recently hosted a convention of Santas in California, and most of these Santas were overheard wishing people Spanish holiday greetings. The Charles J. Howard Santa Claus School, which is (believe it or not) a school for Santas, recently taught their Santa in a three-day course how to deliver gifts in traditional reindeers, as well as in horses and donkeys.

At Aventura Mall right here in Miami, some Santas are still monolingual, but their helpers seem to a diverse group of people who speak different languages. I have yet to see a bilingual Mrs. Santa. Give it time, it will happen.

This is not to say that we live in an ideal society. We have problems, though they are more subtle and often imperceptible. Our laws no longer permit “de jure” discrimination, though there is still a “de facto” discrimination of sorts. I am also fully aware if I drive North where the population is more homogeneous, I might less and less of the type of Santas I have seen in Miami. But it doesn't matter, the fact that these Santas exist proves that there is far more willingness to accept what has hitherto been unacceptable up until recently. Santa is, after all, a powerful symbol and I'm reminded of Paul Valery's quote “What would become of us without the help of what doesn't exist?”

Let's use Santa therefore, even if he doesn't exist, for good.

Which brings me, once again, to this nostalgic time of the year when the days get shorter, though it's simply the fact that the earth is rotating at its farthest from the sun. The pagans call this time of the year the Winter Solstice, a time when the forces of darkness seemed to be winning over the forces of light. I call this time of the year a time to remember the past for what it was, reevaluate the present for what it is, and reaccess areas where you will need to make changes. In more than twenty five years since I sat on Santa's lap, so much has changed in my life, to the world around me, that thinking about it makes those memories sweeter than they actually were. That's nostalgia for you.  I guess I'm growing old.

But that's all in the past. What matters is the present. And to everyone who is reading this all I can say is “Jo, Jo, Jo, Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas everyone!”