Mis Ángeles: Hanging On To Childhood Wonder On This Most Difficult Noche Buena
In a fit of nostalgia, I found myself scrolling through social media recently, trying to find covers of "Navidad Sin Ti," a classic Spanish Christmas-themed ode to lost love.
As a kid, the original song performed by iconic Mexican grupo Los Bukis, was such a part of Christmas that I sometimes felt like I could see frontman Marco Antonio Solís himself floating through the halls of my Tia Ramona's in a crisp white suit, casually devastating us with his perfect pitch and melancholy lyrics about being lonely on Christmas and remembering "the day that I lost you."
Llega Navidad y yo sin ti
En esta soledad
Recuerdo el día en que te perdí
My aunt's Noche Buena parties are notorious in my mind. Closing my eyes now, I can see those yellow-painted halls, the giant Christmas tree, the live banda playing out of the garage, so many bottles of Cazadores tequila, and the drunken adults making scenes.
These epic parties were so wild and warm. And best of all, they had the best collection of Mexican antojitos and dishes you could ever find in one kitchen. I'm talking tamales, champurrado, birria, pozole, buñuelos, taquitos, pan dulce, flan, frijoles puercos, you name it.
Those memories are part of what has nourished me this strange and dark holiday season when people are dying at heartbreaking rates. I think about those family parties in flashes as I argue with my mom about her desire to go shopping for gifts.
I hang on a little tighter to my childhood wonder from back then when I hear that one of my cousins or friends has COVID-19.
These memories are also what I was trying to replicate by scrolling through social media covers of "Navidad Sin Ti," one sleepless December night when I stumbled into an online subculture of people who debate whether Los Bukis are better than The Beatles...which they totally are.
It makes sense that these comparisons would exist. Both groups sold millions of love song records and captured the imagination of fans in countries all over the world.
Still, there are insane arguments as you would expect in a social media rabbit hole, like when a Beatles fan accuses Los Bukis of being narcos. One person, who doesn't say which band is better, points out that something being popular doesn't make it good.
And somehow all that led me to this video of Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jerry Demara.
An L.A. native, Jerry Demara had made a name for himself on Mexico's version of The Voice and went on to write and sing his own hits and covers too.
When I clicked on the video, I was excited to hear his take on "Navidad Sin Ti." Instead, it was a beautiful rendition of "Let It Be" by The Beatles.
In this Instagram video Jerry accompanies his anguished, pitch-perfect vocals with some inspired piano playing from his living room in El Centro, California. He has so much heart and life and joy.
Just days after that performance on an IG Live show, Jerry Demara died, reportedly after injecting himself with a syringe of vitamin B-12 to try and combat his COVID-19 infection. According to an interview with his son in the Calexico Chronicle, he developed an infection with a flesh-eating bacteria at the injection site and COVID "greatly suppressed his immune system and allowed the flesh-eating bacteria to spread more rapidly."
Oh, God! What a tragic confluence of circumstances that only underscores the many dangers we are living through as the pandemic overruns hospitals, destroys families and forces people to choose between earning a living and their own health.
I know there is hope that these dark days will end soon. A vaccine is coming. But how many homes, I wonder, will from now on have to live otra Navidad sin ti?
Way too many, I guess.
That night of nostalgic social media scrolling, I tried to get back to Los Bukis, tried to hold on to those Noche Buena parties at my tia's place.
Then I remembered that the last party I attended there, at least a decade ago, wasn't really a party. It was actually a wake.
In a tragic December for my family, my cousin Gabi died in a car accident just days after my other cousin Martin was murdered. These were some of the kids I would run around with at those Noche Buena parties. It was a hard Christmas.
Their wakes were held on the same day. I drove to Riverside to see Martinsito's body displayed almost as if he were still alive in his living room, a tradition in some Mexican pueblos. It was a party like no other, where the tragedy of this young man's death overshadowed the attempt to celebrate his short life.
Then I drove to Paramount to see Gabi one last time, where the mood was much more somber.
My Aunt Ramona's house was right next to the funeral home where they held the vigil for Gabi. I saw my father cry for the first time. Gabi was his goddaughter.
My Tia Mari, Gabi's mom, screamed as I held her in a way that's been burned into my memory, "Siempre andaba conmigo!" She was saying Gabi was always with her, and now she was gone.
I left the funeral home that night and went to my aunt's house next door and unwrapped a tamal, shoved it in a cup of frijoles puercos and took a bite. And I remember thinking this was the hardest Christmas, but that somehow we would survive.
If I'm being honest, I don't know if Christmas 2020 will be harder to get through than any other. That's the thing about facing down tremendous tragedy, it always feels harder than the last time.
And I used to think that I survived because I was getting just as tough as "the going." But I know now that I've gotten through things because of my family, my friends, my community.
I'm counting, maybe idealistically, on that spirit of unity to get us through these perilous winter months to a brighter spring. My dear friend Juan, who died a few years ago right around the holidays, was fond of saying, "It's always murkiest before dawn."
I think about that, too, when I see the staggering cases of COVID-19 hurting Latino households. Latinos make up more than 56% of all of California's COVID cases, even though we only make up 39% of the state's population.
Latinos also account for nearly 48% of California's coronavirus deaths. Those aren't just numbers. Those are families being pulled apart with repercussions that will ripple for generations.
But we'll survive this Christmas, too.
There won't be an epic Noche Buena party at my Tia Ramona's this year. I'm kind of hoping there won't be any parties anywhere this Christmas.
Because I'd rather live a year without parties than see my community suffer anymore Navidades sin ti.
No sé en dónde estés
Pero en verdad
Por tu felicidad
Hoy brindo en esta Navidad
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.
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