Thursday, December 25, 2014

Asalto de Navidad/ Christmas Assault

¡Happy Holidays!
A couple of people have asked that I post some of my holiday stories. This is the second story.

After doing some service yesterday, I went to see Selma (here). Ordinarily, I'm very skeptical of anything Oprah does regarding the Black Experience/ history. The Butler, for example was a disservice to many who were in the struggle (especially to Black nationalists and others whose refusal to moderate served an important function in the movement). However, Selma accomplished some things I think are crucial. For one, it humanized MLK, something that's desperately needed. He was a man, after all. Secondly, the director did a good job of shedding light on the role of women in the movement, something we almost never see. If anything, Selma helps put the current movement/ struggle against state-sanctioned violence against people of color into an important historical context.

* * *

Asalto de Navidad/ Christmas Assault
(Or: Pasteles & Collard Greens)

One of my best friends (we were inseparable) when I was growing up was Al. We were born on the same day, one minute apart. He was born on a Monday morning June 6, 1955 at 3:28 AM and I was born a minute later. Al was a dark-skinned African-American with fine features, very handsome. He played trumpet and I played trombone and percussion. We wanted to become Latin Jazz musicians and Al came from a family of musicians. We were night and day, yin and yang, if you saw one, the other was certain to be somewhere nearby.

And we were trouble: devious Gemini’s to the core.

Al had 15 brothers and sisters and they all lived in this huge 23-room house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. I know it had 23 rooms because I counted. Ms. Pearl, Al’s mother, would tire of throwing me out of her house. She used to refer to Puerto Ricans as, “All you mira, miras.” I think she got that from constantly hearing PRs exclaim, oye mira, mira! On the streets of what was at the time a diverse neighborhood. She would chase me out of her house, but would send out her sons to look for me if I stayed away too long and then scolded me for staying away. Of course, she would throw me out the door and I would climb through the windows. Al got all his looks from his mother, she was a very dark-skinned, fine featured, woman with long, fine hair, still beautiful in spite of all the children. Her house was run like a conglomerate, with varying levels of management. I was totally fascinated.

She didn’t like PRs and let me know it, but I think she loved the heck out of me. She would call me “Black” and laugh because I was so light-skinned. The name stuck, I was known as “Black,” as in “Yo, Black,” in her house. However, she couldn’t abide by those noisy “Po’ Reekans” as she referred to us. 

Therefore, it didn’t surprise me when she was initially outraged when my family decided to show up on her doorstep one Christmas Eve in observance of the Puerto Rican tradition of the paranda. She looked at me and said, “Nigga, what the fuck are all those mira miras doing out there on my front door?” My family also had its share of musicians, my uncle having led a salsa band for decades. My stepfather was also something of a musician and my mother, much to my embarrassment, can’t sing to save her life. But there they were, on Ms. Pearl’s doorstep singing some whacked out PR Christmas song with Al, her favorite son, at the head playing trumpet.

For Puerto Ricans, the celebration of Christmas is more of an assault than a normal celebration. You see, a group will get together and march en masse to each doorway. They come complete with instruments, real and makeshift. Puerto Ricans consider pots and pans, for example, instruments. As are beer bottles (full or empty) or anything else that makes a percussive sound. There are, of course, the real instruments, guitars, congas, cowbells. For Puerto Ricans, anything – any kind of instrument -- is considered game. If you played a harp and had one handy, you would be “encouraged” to tag along, harp and all.

So, there they were, my whole family and what looked like the rest of the PR community, banging on pots and pans, congas, bongos, and guitars, with my mother screeching at the top of her voice. Now here’s the real kicker: PR paranda tradition holds that you go from door to door. Each household gets hit (el Asalto). Once outside your door, Puerto Ricans will not leave until you feed them and get them drunk and then you have to go out there with them to the next house.

“Edward,” Ms. Pearl said (you know you’re in trouble when grownups use your real name), “Tell them muthafuckas and my son to get the fuck out of my door before I call the police.” This is where I had to explain the part where they wouldn’t leave until they were well fed and drunk and, with a “Hell no,” under her breath, she opened the front door to give my people a piece of her mind and that’s when the whole group just rushed in, mistakenly thinking they were being invited in.

That was a helluva Noche Buena, as PRs call Christmas Eve. Ms Pearl ate lechon (pork suckling) and pasteles (meat embedded in mashed plantains and yucca wrapped in plantain leaves) for the first time and her sister, Aunt Gerty, got so drunk, she literally lost her wig. In the process, traditional PR food collided with soul food. Flan mixed with sweet potato pie, greens crashed with pasteles, James Brown mixed with Willie Colon, the rum and the gin flowed, and Ms. Pearl and my mother formed an uneasy truce, each knowing that their sons were inseparable.

I don’t know how many people were there that night, some we didn’t even know. Every Christmas Eve after that, I know Ms. Pearl would anxiously await the ruckus of “All dem mira, miras.” She would never admit it, but I know she loved those parties. She would say that “Porter Reekans” knew how to party like black folk and that’s probably the greatest compliment Ms. Pearl could give.

Ms. Pearl could be stern, but she was so supportive of the young people in the neighborhood. She would allow, for example, her son George’s band, The New Breed, to practice in her basement. Now, you have to understand this was about a 16-piece band with Marshal amps. We also played loud, performing songs from diverse sources, like Buddy Miles, Grand Funk Railroad, Kool & the Gang. Her son, George, was a gifted drummer who practiced at least 8-10 hours a day -- everyday. Ms. Pearl supported all of that. Eventually, she would lose that big house on Bushwick Avenue.

George would go on tour with Gloria Gaynor. Al and I worked as freelancers for various local bands, mostly salsa. Some of the horn players of The New Breed would break off and play with BT Express and other groups of the day. I would become discouraged with the music business and leave it all behind. When Ms. Pearl lost her house, she moved to a smaller one much further away – somewhere in Jamaica, Queens. I would visit, but not as often. Al and I would go our different ways, with Al beginning to get involved in petty crime that would eventually lead him to small stretches of time spent in and out of jail.

The last time I saw Ms. Pearl, she hugged me and tenderly caressed my face. She told me to make sure to take care of myself. Shortly thereafter, I left New York for some time. The last time I spoke to anyone from the family was when George called me while I was living in Houston. He was on a world tour with Gloria Gaynor and had left some tickets for me at the Forum. When I saw him, I hugged him as I would a brother.

I never saw any of them again... 

I look back now and realize, as I did then, that those were special days. I lived during a time where there was community and while times were hard (they always were), people somehow looked out for one another's children. Today, I don't see these traditions practiced as much as in those days, and I'm saddened a bit because our children don't realize how much they're missing. Here’s to Ms Pearl, to my brother from another mother, Al, and to music. I hope that wherever they are that they never lost their zest for life in the face of hardship.

            My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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