The holidays are always a time of reflection, and as they approach the mind is flooded with warm memories of the past. My ‘hybrid ‘ Mexican, Puerto Rican, and American family always had an interesting fusion of traditions.
The Puerto Rican influence of my mother’s family was always more dominate, and that was in part to the powerful presence of my late grand father, Louis Reyes. My nephew Tim put it best in his eulogy for our abuelo, “If you were Chinese and hung out with Grandpa, you would be proud to be Puerto Rican”. The funniest part of the statement is that it was true.
For Christmas my Puerto Rican mother always made tamales. Like a Carmen Lomas Garza painting, the family gathered at the table to form a production line and worked into the night listing to music and making tamales. This was just a warm up. In the days after Christmas, we would gather again at the table to make over a hundred Puerto Rican pastels for the family celebration of Los Santos Reyes.
Growing up, I always new this was a special holiday for our family. Christmas was an intimate family gathering, but the Fiesta de Los Reyes was a party, and people came from hundreds of miles to share a Puerto Rican meal, sing alguinaldos and dance at this party our family religiously held.
My Grandfather would tell me every year about why our family celebrated the Feast of Los Santos Reyes. Most people that attended assumed it was because the family name was Reyes. As the oral history goes, the celebration originated with a promesa my great grandmother Antonia Reyes made to Los Tres Magos when the family migrated to Hawaii.
A hurricane hit Puerto Rico in 1921, destroying all the crops the family had to sell at the market. Financially hit, the choice was made to go to Hawaii where good paying jobs and nice accommodations were being offered. When the family arrived, they soon realized they had been deceived. The houses were shacks and the work was hard and the pay was not what was promised. “They made us work 9 to 12 hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week.” my grandfather used to tell us.
Life was hard in Hawaii, and when my grandfather’s brother seriously injured his leg badly do to unsafe working conditions, my great grandmother Antonia new she had to get the family out of there. She prayed to Los Santos Reyes for her son not to loose his leg, and to help guide the family out of Hawaii and onto California. If these things came to pass, she would religiously celebrate the Feast of Los Santos Reyes for as long as she lived
Uncle Juan kept his leg and by 1924 the familia Reyes had made it to California. As promised, on January 6th my great grandmother Antonia celebrated the Feast of the Three Kings. She always started the celebration with a prayer and then a meal, before the music, singing and dancing began. The Party would last for 3 days, a Paranda, and would go from house to house.
The family picture taken in Hawaii in 1923
The tradition was kept up and after my great grandmother passed, my mother Damisa Reyes Gomez took on the responsibility for the family of organizing the celebration and maintaining the tradition. For the past 33 yeas, the celebration has been at a hall in Union City, California. Family and friends of the family, show up every year on the 6th of January with Puerto Rican rice, beans, rum, cuatros and congas. Every Jibaro in a 50-mile radius manages to find out about it and shows up.
In the mid 90’s I met an older man by the name of “Sandoval” at the Puerto Rican club in San Francisco. He asked me what my family name was and I told him my Puerto Rican side is “Reyes”, and my grandfather was Louis Reyes. He new my grandfather, and recounted a story of how my grandfather gave him a ride back to his army base because he had missed his bus. Sandoval also told me how he remembered my great grandmother Antonia and how great her celebrations for Los Santos Reyes were. ” Back then, the parties would last for 3 days. We did the traditional Paranda, where you go house to house. Antonia started it all for the Puerto Ricans here in California. She revived the tradition we left behind in Puerto Rico. ” He told me.
My grandfather Louis Reyes passed away a few days before the Feast of the Three Kings in 2000, at the age of 93. The family decided to lay him to rest on the 6th of January, the feast day his family always celebrated. Serenaded by a band playing aguinaldos and carried by his grandsons, and great grandsons wearing white guayaberas Louis Reyes was buried.
When the cuatro player hit the first notes of the aguinaldo jibaro that night, it was strange not to see my grandfather up at the head table with the microphone in hand surrounded by family and friends as I had seen every January 6th my whole life. I found solace in the thought that this night he was dancing with Antonia and seeing all his family that had gone before him.
the band playing with my Grandfather Louis watching
This article was contributed by Nick Gomez.