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Good Night, Noche Buena

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Shutterstock / Jiri Vaclavek
Shutterstock / Jiri Vaclavek

Growing up in Miami, in the mid '80s, the holidays revolved around Noche Buena, which literally translates into "the good night," but which, in Cubanese, translates into Christmas Eve. Noche Buena took a week to prepare for. My dad would pack my sister and I into his car, rock n' roll and soul music blasting from his speakers, and we'd strap ourselves into his Bronco -- feet dangling, noses in the air like girly greyhounds, ready for the hunt. The hunt meant we'd be looking for Cuba in Miami, looking for the island in the peninsula of Florida, seeking out transplanted bits of what, we were told, was our history.

My sister and I are American-born-Cubans, or ABC's, and as such had not technically been to Cuba, but we knew what we were looking for on those Christmas Eve hunts. We knew Cuba smelled like a roasted suckling pig and yucca smothered in garlic. We knew you never had desert without a little cafecito, and the cafecito had to have espumita, a caramel-colored foamy sweetness, which mom showed us how to make with plenty of sugar by the time we were four. We knew Cuba sounded like the clear, pure tone of Beny Moré, and that palm trees were the perfect props for a green Christmas. We knew our hands would smell like seasoning for weeks after we helped to spread dad's special sauce over everything -- the first step toward delicacy, guajiro-style (aka: country style, not to be confused with Gangnam style).

We knew that, come Christmas Eve, we'd set out the bongos and maracas and dad's drum set. My aunt's living room would be full of music, the kids would bang on tambourines and the old men would dance like this was the last time they'd ever swing their hips to a slow melancholy ballad, or kick to the beat of a rousing meringue. Outside, dad and my uncle would care for the pig in the Caja China as it roasted, scenting the air with the miracle of slow cooking. Taking little bits of toasted skin from the top (just to make sure it was good and ready, just to make sure, they assured us). We had all day and all night, and enough cigars to last till New Years. This was a day to simmer and savor. Slow food before the slow food movement.

These days, Noche Buena is different. My parents divorced when I was a teenager and my dad has since passed. My mom's house isn't a big concrete affair with a yard out in la sawesera (South West Miami) like my aunt's was, it's an apartment in Coral Gables. Some would say we've moved up, some would say we've lost our groove. Others might say we're becoming "American." My parents (and by parents I mean my mom, dad and step-dad) helped my sister and I bring college diplomas and too much education into the house -- Masters and PhD's. Our Christmases are, sometimes, spread out over thousands of American miles. My sister won't be around this Christmas. She will, instead, be in Mississippi, sharing with her new in-laws, who I'm sure will bring their own flavor to future Christmases.

This year, our Tia Blanca will join us, who just arrived from Cuba, not too long ago. She might tell us what it's "really like" on the island today, giving everyone a glimpse of what they have not seen in over 30 years. But that might get us into trouble (you know what they say about religion and politics at the table... ) Instead, more than anything, she will probably talk about her new life in Miami and her children, who she misses dearly. My sister and I haven't had kids yet (oh, those feminist, American career paths), so the youngest member of the family will be my 12-year-old cousin. No little rugrats running around like there used to be. It used to be you had to watch your step, or you might run into one on the dance floor, in the kitchen, in the back yard. And given that I converted to vegetarianism when I was 12 after watching a video on factory farming (and never looked back), I will be bringing organic veggie dishes to the feast. This year, my mom has promised the "oldie goldies," as we call them -- the grandparents -- a full-sized pig. But, we definitely won't be spreading mojo all over the lomo (pork loin) -- we're ordering in. There won't be much dancing, but there will be music all the night through. A blend of Celia Cruz and Frank Sinatra; folk and Gloria Estefan. My step-dad will try and play Phantom of the Opera and we will dissuade him, with success thank god, as we hit the Pandora button on our cell phones. My 20-year-old cousin, Sophie, is good at this.

Part of me is sad, that we won't have the raucous sprawling gathering we used to have. That it won't take us a week to prepare, and that our old men have gotten too old to dance. That my sister won't be here; that we are so adept at family planning, having babies only when we are "good and ready," that we will miss out on the joy of cooing at a laughing (or crying) baby this year. That my youngest cousin (the 12-year-old) doesn't even speak Spanish.

Another part of me, however, will look on and see a microcosm of a growing Miami. A Miami whose Cubans have grown far, wide and up. A Miami that is no longer just a Cuban enclave. Today, we boast a bigger variety of Latin Americans, and we've even introduced hipsters into the mix (take a ride down to Wynwood, if you don't believe me). Christmas follows on the heels of Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the biggest art fairs in the world, and though Spanish is still spoken everywhere (minus from my 12-year-old cousin's mouth), our flavors aren't just Cuban, but something more. My kids will be mutts, but they will also be the way of the new, new world order. It might not be the same old Noche Buena, but it will definitely still be a very good night.