Image Source: Unsplash/Jacob Thomas
My great-grandma Rosie died last November from COVID. The moments leading to her death consisted of my family gathering at the hospital, remaining distanced apart right outside the ICU, with each of us peering through the glass to see her one last time. Before we knew it, it was time to cut her life support. At 8:30 p.m. that night, she was gone.
Her death was untimely, as the holidays were approaching. Nearly every year, we celebrated the holidays at her house. But with her death still fresh and family still grieving, none of us saw any point in celebrating. Abuela Rosie, the matriarch of my grandma’s side of the family, worked hard every year to keep alive the tradition of bringing everyone together. She loved how it brought us all closer, even if it was only for a few hours. Without her, many of us felt less motivated to come together as a family.
Growing up, I didn’t care much about celebrating my family’s Mexican-American New Year’s Eve traditions. As a kid, I didn’t embrace my culture. I hated Mexican food because I couldn’t handle the spices. I would eat the tamales on New Year’s Eve and slide the rice and beans on my grandpa’s plate. I cringed whenever my family would play loud Latin music in my great-grandma’s living room. But this resistance to embrace my Mexican roots didn’t come from nowhere.
My lack of appreciation for my culture stemmed from living in a predominantly white town and being the only family of color in our neighborhood. I wasn’t actively exposed to my Mexican culture except on holidays or when my grandparents would cook Mexican dishes for us. Kids in my elementary and middle school always pushed negative stereotypes onto me, while some of my Latinx peers considered me “whitewashed.” If anything, being surrounded by extended family during New Year’s had come across as unappealing, because it made me feel even more like an outsider. All I wanted was to fit in somewhere, and I constantly felt like I didn’t fit anywhere.
But as time went on, my feelings changed. In high school, I came to appreciate my culture and the effort that my great-grandma put into making the holidays special. I started to appreciate the hours spent over the hot stove making enough rice and beans and green enchilada casseroles to feed everyone. I valued the trips she made to the local Mexican market to buy the best tamales in Riverside and how she and my great-aunts got dressed up to look good for everyone. I even started to enjoy the games we’d play, like Mexican lotería.
Image Source: Unsplash/irvin Macfarland
But what ultimately made New Year’s Eve special to me was my great-grandma. She would turn up the music and watch my mom and her sisters dance while cooking her signature rice and beans over her small kitchen stove. My family would devour her chicken and pork tamales with hot rojo salsa. They’d share juicy gossip, and many would talk in Spanglish at the table, with me listening in and trying to piece together what the conversation was about.
All of these traditions, especially eating tamales while catching up and playing lotería, are what made my great-grandma happy. It brought her so much joy to be surrounded by everyone she loved and cared for. It was in moments like those where I was able to appreciate the aspects of my culture that I once found annoying or even embarrassing.
Today, I look back and treasure all those memories together. Great-Grandma Rosie may no longer be with us, but that doesn’t mean we should let those traditions she worked so hard to preserve die by the wayside. This year, we’ll be playing lotería at our dining table, with me messing up the pronunciation of each card. My mom will be serving Mexican and American food at the table, while dancing to her favorite Latin music songs. My grandpa will likely lead the prayer. My great-aunts will all be there, and I’ll actively be there because our traditions are important to me now and so is my family. New Year’s Eve with my Mexican-American family might have been boring to me as a kid, but as an adult, it’s something I now look forward to.