I’ve never really cared for New Year’s Eve, at least not in the way that people normally get into it: the big parties, the big countdown, etc. I don’t like to make big plans. I like to stay at home and do nothing. I guess when I think about it, I celebrate most holidays pretty low-key. Christmas for me is about more of the religious meaning rather than the holiday parties and giving gifts. I don’t give my family gifts on Christmas because I give them stuff throughout the year so what I do for Christmas is sponsor a needy family through a Catholic church downtown in LA and buy them gifts for Christmas. I do this for a couple of reasons. One is because my mom's birthday is on December 15th and I like to do something to honor her birthday (the delivery date for the gifts is around her birthday) and I also do it because as a kid, we didn’t have money and never really had a “Christmas” like the kind most people are used to. Every year when I sponsor a family, I get the lists of what the family wants and they’re always necessities: clothes, pots and pans, cleaning supplies etc. Sometimes the families will post things they really “want but don’t need.” The church says we don’t have to get them everything on their list but I always get them EVERYTHING on their list because the kids should get a Lego set if they want, the single mom that scrapes by should get the makeup and hair straightener she really wants. If I can give it to them, why not give it to them? If you have the ability to help, why wouldn’t you do it, right?
I do this because these families remind me of my family growing up. My siblings and I always talk about how we used to have to divide the school supplies evenly between us. Our mom would buy us a pack of notebook paper and one of us would open it and give fifty sheets to each person to take to school. Holidays were usually quiet in my house because my mom didn’t want us to notice we didn’t have anything, which was hard because every year it seems like we’re told by advertisers that you have to spend a lot of money to show people you love them.
My favorite holiday memories are usually ones made by accident, meaning that we didn’t do anything, yet looking back at it, they were amazing memories that matter more to me than any gift you could buy.
My favorite NYE happened just like this. I was a teenager; probably thirteen. My mom and I would spend every NYE together. She’d come home from working at the restaurant (she was a cook at Garza’s Cafe in my hometown of San Juan, TX) and we’d watch TV and wait for midnight to bring in the New Year. What’s weird is that in the neighborhood we lived in, there was also a part of us that would get worried about the New Year coming in because people would shoot bullets in the air to celebrate the year and the next day, you’d see a story on the news about someone that got shot by someone else celebrating the New Year. HAPPY NEW YEAR! BANG! CALL 911!
My mom and I shared a TV; my brothers shared the other one. We had two TVs in our little house (they were our babysitters). Rule was, whatever TV my mom was near by, we’d have to watch what she wanted to watch. My mom always watched the TV I watched so I would normally end up watching what she wanted. Since my mom couldn’t speak English, we’d watch predominantly TV in Spanish. There was an order of preference in the channels my mom would watch:
1.) I’d turn the TV to Televisa first. That was the only channel from Mexico we’d get (this was before TV Azteca), if there wasn’t a show or novela she was into, I’d change the channel to…
2.) Univision. My mom’s favorite show there was Primer Impacto (her favorite part was Walter Mercado’s horoscopes). They would sometimes replay old novelas from Televisa so she’d watch it.
3.) Telemundo. She sometimes watched this channel, not as much as the others, mainly because this one was added to our lineup last and my mom wasn’t as familiar with it. They also seemed to play a lot of novelas from South America and my mom didn’t like them as much.
IF there was nothing on those channels, then we got to see TV in English which was a double-edged sword because there were way more options to see but whatever we saw, I’d have to translate for my mom. My mom and I loved watching action movies together. My mom would get mad at me sometimes because as her translator, occasionally there would be a scene that I wouldn’t explain to her for minutes and she’d ask, “What are they saying?” And I would sum it up for her and say something like, “They’re going to get the girl.” And she’d snap at me, “Really? All that talking in that scene and that’s all they said?”
So this one New Year’s Eve, I was flipping through the channels and couldn’t find any action movie for us to watch. We were running out of options and then I found that AMC was playing West Side Story and Grease sing-alongs back-to-back to ring in the New Year. I really wanted to see this but I didn’t know how to get my mom onboard. I knew I could get her to watch Grease because she was familiar with it and had seen it before. (It was so popular in Mexico, though over there it’s called “La Onda Vaselina.”)
My mom hadn’t seen West Side Story. This one was going to be tricky to get her into it because it’s a musical and I had never translated a musical to my mom before and also, my mom didn’t really know how American musicals worked. I told her that West Side Story was a story about Latinos (even though most of the people in the movie weren’t Latino) and that the story was kinda like a novela. She thought it was interesting. I also told her that some of the scenes in the movie remind her of the black/white Mexican Pedro Infante, Antonio Aguilar movies we saw all the time. For those of you that don’t know, these movies were filled with people breaking out into song out of nowhere, usually dressed up as cowboys. There’s always a scene with a man singing to a woman standing by her bedroom window or something like that. She was into it.
At this point in my life, I was already a big theater nerd. I did all the school plays. My brother would drop me off at the public library in the summer so that I could read plays and watch videos of Broadway shows. I knew West Side Story by heart. I LOVED the movie. I loved Anita. She was a role I knew I could play.
The movie started and my mom got into really quick. She loved the songs; she loved the dancing. I translated the songs as they happened. She loved “America.” I had trouble translating “Gee, Officer Krupke” but she got the gist of it.
We spent the next four, five hours watching West Side Story and Grease. (I was also recording them on the VCR so that I would have them to sing later.) I’d sing along with the songs and tell her what I was singing. I knew the dances so certain songs I’d get up and dance to which she would ask me how I knew the dances and I’d tell her, “Because I’ve watched these a lot. This is what I want to do when I grow up.” My mom laughed because she thought I was being ridiculous. There was no way a daughter of a cook in a border town would ever get to do something like that. I kept telling her, “You watch. I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do it and then one day I’m gonna buy you a house that has air conditioning and plumbing that works and you’re not gonna believe it.”
I always remember telling her that…because I never got to do that.
She passed away before she could see me do anything. And yes, I know, people say, “She’s seen you do it. She’s looking down at you…” and yes, I agree but there’s something to be said about not having a memory of her seeing me that always feels like there’s something missing.
We finished watching the movies and I remember counting down to midnight with her in our little house. We were sitting on the couch with a furry, San Marcos blanket with a tiger on it (if you saw my show, it was like the blanket we had on the couch in that house) over us because the house wasn’t insulated and it was freezing. We counted down and at midnight, I hugged her, she gave me a kiss and we started playing our favorite game: Was That A Firework Or Bullet?
The funny thing about all the New Year’s Eves I had with my mom is that we would count down to midnight, then she would say, “Well, it’s a new year….” and by 12:10 AM, we were in bed, going to sleep.
I always remember that night because I felt like it was the first night she realized how serious I was about what I wanted to do with my life. I fell in love with theater but it wasn’t something I could share with her. She didn’t “get” it. She didn’t get that it was something people did for a living. I want to believe that on that night, she finally got to see how much I loved it.
That NYE meant so much to me because I had the two most important things in my life in one room: my mom and theater.
I hope that 2016 is filled with happiness for everyone.
I hope we all have food to eat and clothes to wear.
I hope we don’t let fear stop us from doing the things we want to do.
I hope we can all treat each other kindly, regardless of race or religion.
I hope we can all be more sympathetic towards each other.
I just hope for everything.
So “Happy New Year!” from the daughter of a cook in a border town that is (so far) getting to do what she set out to do years ago.