Being Familia When You Aren't Home for the Holidays

During the holidays, immigrant families are keenly aware of the cultural value of familia and how the decision to emigrate to the US has affected them.  While the word familia is literally translated as “family,” its meaning in Spanish is much broader than what immediately comes to our minds.

Ask the average anglo American about his or her family, and they’ll probably name their spouse, significant other, and/or kids – automatically defining family as a social unit consisting of one or more adults and their children.

But ask a Latin American or Latino about family, and they’ll name everyone from the immediate family to grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, and may even include godparents and long-time family friends.  For an immigrant, the question, “Do you have family here?” is usually answered negatively, because their extended family and heritage is in their home country.

Each December (pre-COVID), we have hosted a Christmas party to celebrate our Latino familia.  As many as 75 to 100 people have filled the Smith home for an afternoon of food, fellowship, and familia.  We invite everyone, pack them in, and chaos reigns.  Everyone brings holiday foods.  Mexicans bring their jalapeños and hot sauce, and Salvadorans make pupusas.  And there is friendly banter over the merits of tamales wrapped in banana leaves over those wrapped in corn husks – and over the recipes from each country or region!

Several years ago, I realized the significance of this party.  Alfredo, a quiet young dad, was hanging out in the kitchen, and we began talking.  “You know,” he said, “coming to your house makes Christmas special.  It feels like familia here.”  He and his wife, Julita, have been in the states for over 10 years, and they have fond memories of large family gatherings in Mexico where the children played soccer and other games outside, the women provided a constant supply of special holiday foods, and the men gathered under the trees to talk about “macho guy” stuff.  They enjoyed Nochebuena, celebrating Christmas Eve midnight mass together, sharing gifts after mass, and eating tamales with hot ponche.  Many times the festivities extended through New Years’ Day.  In the US, there’s no extended family, just Alfredo, Julita, Eric and Ashley in their small trailer.   With luck, the adults get Christmas Day off from work.

Our last party was in 2019, pre-COVID, and the tradition has been missed by everyone.  There is even more of a need to come together as familia, to share the joy as well as the pain of these past two difficult years.  I pray that we will be able to resume this tradition as we look ahead to 2022.

Holidays are a great time to bring people together from many countries, with different cultures and traditions, to remind folks of what is truly important during this season of the year.  We share fond memories from the past, and celebrate the greatest gift of the season, the birth of Christ.  We are familia.

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