We Don’t Like “Feliz Navidad” And We Don’t Eat Tacos

An excerpt from The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez, a fantastic new novel about love and friendship in a multicultural immigrant community.

Poor Mayor Toro. He’s an outcast everywhere — at school, where the other kids pick on him, and at home, where he lives in the shadow of his older brother — except when he’s around Maribel, the beautiful 15-year-old neighbor who exists in the margins of society for her own reasons. In this chapter, Mayor goes through a range of teenage emotion, and when the heat sputters out in the apartment building where he lives, it’s the one time in the book when all the residents get together, trying to keep one another warm and keep one another company while celebrating another emotion — joy — even in the midst of winter.
Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans and director of The Unknown Americans Project.

Chris Ritter/BuzzFeed

I hadn’t had a run-in with Garrett since I’d stood up to him that day with Maribel. I’d seen him around, hanging out alone behind the school, scratching at the sidewalk with a rock, flicking pebbles at the tires of the buses as they lined up to take everyone home. I’d seen him slouched in the hall, his hands in his coat pockets, staring at his scuffed boots. And I’d seen him during gym even though he never got changed anymore. He showed up in his regular clothes, and Mr. Samuels would say, “You don’t get dressed, you don’t participate,” and Garrett would shrug and plant himself on the wood bleachers and close his eyes for the next forty-five minutes while we ran around shooting basketballs and learning badminton.

Then one day, just before the winter break, I was digging a notebook out of my locker when I heard someone say, “How’s birdbrain?”

I turned around.

“How’s your girlfriend?” Garrett asked. “Retard girl.”

“Don’t call her that,” I said.

“What? ‘Girlfriend’ or ‘retard’?”

“I told you to leave her alone,” I said.

“You did?” He screwed his face into an exaggerated look of confusion.

I put the notebook in my backpack, shut my locker, and started walking.

“Hey!” Garrett called. He trotted up beside me and grabbed my arm, yanking me so that I was facing him again. “I was still talking to you.”

“I need to go,” I said, trying to pull my arm free.

“She a good lay? I bet she is. I bet you can do whatever you want to a girl like that.”

“Stop it.”

“I’ve been thinking about all the things I could do to her. Tell her to take her clothes off—”

“Stop.”

“Have her suck my dick—”

And that’s when I punched him. I’d never punched anyone in my life, but before I knew it, I squeezed my hand shut, drew back my elbow, and punched Garrett right in the side of the neck. I’d been aiming for his face, but I missed.

“Jesus!” he shouted, falling back.

Then he ran at me, throwing his arms around my waist, ramming his head into my stomach, tackling me to the floor.

“Get off me!” I yelled.

Garrett socked me so hard I could taste blood in my mouth. All his weight was on top of me, pinning me to the floor. Very dimly, I was aware of a small crowd forming around us.

Garrett nailed me a few more times, in the chest and the ribs, before Mr. Baker, the driver’s ed instructor, broke it up. “That’s enough,” he said, prying us apart. “Up on your feet, boys.”

Garrett shook Mr. Baker off and paced in a tight circle. Mr. Baker snatched Garrett’s coat sleeve. “Settle down,” he said.

I put my hand to my mouth and felt my bloodied lip, split right down the center. What had just happened? Had I really punched him? But instead of feeling pain or any kind of remorse, I felt exhilarated.

“Principal’s office for both of you,” Mr. Baker said, still working to corral Garrett. “And then we’re calling both of your parents.”

Garrett spat out a laugh.

“Something funny, Mr. Miller?”

“Good luck with that.”

“With what?”

“Listen, you talk to my dad, do me a favor and ask him where the fuck he’s been. I haven’t seen him in three days.”

Mr. Baker took a deep breath. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going to sort this all out.”

The school wanted my parents to come in for a conference.

“What is this about?” my dad asked when my mom mentioned it that afternoon. She had intercepted him at the door when he got home from work.

“We need to go meet with his teachers,” my mom explained.

“All of his teachers?”

“I don’t know. Maybe just the guidance counselor. But I told them we would come in as soon as you got home. Someone’s there waiting for us.”

I was standing by my bedroom door, out of view, but I could hear everything my parents were saying. I had gone straight to my room when I came home, holding my phone over my mouth as I walked through the apartment, trying to hide my swollen, cracked lip from my mom, and I hadn’t come out since. The school nurse had wanted to clean off the blood, but I’d begged her to leave it alone, and now I kept looking at it, dried and crusty, in the mirror, in amazement.

“Now?” my dad said.

“They want to see us as soon as possible.”

My dad sighed. “Is he in there?”

“He’s in his room. But he won’t tell me anything. We can talk to him when we get home. Come on, let’s go.”

“Don’t push me.”

“We need to go.”

I knew my mom was trying to guide my dad out the door, probably thumping him on the leg with her purse.

My dad shouted into the apartment, “What did you do, Mayor?” before I heard the door click shut.

An hour and a half later I was sitting on my bed, awaiting my fate, when my dad stomped down the hallway and swung open the door to my room. He wasn’t a huge guy, but he was breathing in a way that seemed to inflate him, and he stood there staring at me, his neck bent over, his arms down at his sides. I swallowed hard. In the time that he and my mom had been gone, I’d talked myself into the idea that maybe my dad would be proud of me—just a little bit—when he found out I’d gotten into a fight. Maybe it proved I had a little bit of machismo in me after all. Plus, it was something that not even Enrique had ever done, at least not that I knew of. But now, seeing my dad’s face, I could tell that idea was out the window. Silence festered in the room. I swallowed again, trying to get down the saliva that had collected in my mouth.

My dad closed the door behind him. He paced in front of me, breathing like a bull. I sat on my hands and stared at my knees.

After what must have been five full minutes, I said, “What?”

My dad stopped pacing and looked at me like I had just broken the first rule of engagement. Like I should have known that I wasn’t supposed to talk first.

“What?” my dad repeated incredulously. “What? I’ll tell you what. You punched someone.”

“He deserved it!”

My dad started pacing again and suddenly, somehow, I knew that the fight wasn’t the thing that was bothering him.

After another long stretch of silence, he said, “Your counselor told us your grades are slipping.”

I hung my head. So that’s what this was about. I’d been spending so much time with Maribel lately that I hadn’t really been focused on things like homework.

But then my dad said, “I asked her if it was because you were spending too much time at soccer.”

Something dropped through me like a runaway elevator. Shit, I thought. Shit, shit, shit. My dad was still pacing. I tried to steel myself for whatever was coming next. There was a distinct possibility, I thought, that he was going to hit me. Not that he’d ever done it before—he’d thrown things and kicked things—but I sometimes had the sense when he got angry that he was only about an inch away from getting physical, as if so far over the years, even though the thought might have crossed his mind, he’d been able to control himself, but that if he were pushed too far into the fire, there would be no stopping him.

“You lied,” he said.

I nodded.

“This whole time.”

I nodded again.

My dad worked his jaw from side to side. “This whole time!”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You made me look like a fool tonight! Is that what you think I am? A fool?”

“No,” I squeaked.

“I thought you were out there, every day, playing, part of the team. But what have you been doing instead? Drugs? Drinking?”

“No!”

“How can I know?”

“I’m not, Papi.”

“This whole time!” he screamed, and he lunged toward me, squeezing my shoulders between his hands like a vise, lifting me to my feet.

His nostrils flared and he looked me right in the eyes. “Goddamn it, Mayor!” He dug his fingertips into my skin like he was trying to carve his way down to my bone.

I didn’t want to cry, but I could feel my eyes burning.

My dad brought his face close to mine, close enough so that the tips of our noses almost touched. “You’re done,” he said.

Christmas that year was both the best and the worst we’d had in a while. There was this kind of pall over everything, heavy and sticky like a film we couldn’t get out from under. It hadn’t taken long to deduce that “You’re done” meant I was grounded until further notice. No Maribel, no William, no allowance, no nothing but school and home until my dad decided otherwise. And on top of that, my dad announced the next night, no Christmas presents this year, either. “Wait until you see the pile of gifts we’re getting Enrique,” my dad said. “A mountain of gifts! That will teach you not to lie to me again.” My mom argued that my dad was being hard on me, but he didn’t want to hear it. Which meant that what to do with me became just one more source of tension between them.

On Christmas Eve, the three of us took a bus to the Wilmington train station to meet Enrique, who was coming home for a few days for the holidays. My mom had begged him to stay longer, but he claimed he needed to be back on campus for some obscure reason he never disclosed. Even so, a few days was better than nothing—I needed any buffer I could get—and my mom was busting at the seams in anticipation of seeing her baby boy again, as she kept saying.

“He’s a grown man now,” my dad told her.

“He’s still my baby,” my mom insisted.

When Enrique came down the steps into the train vestibule, he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt that said “Maryland” across the front and black athletic pants. He was unshaven, carrying a duffel bag in his hand. Honestly, he looked homeless.

“Kiko!” my mom shouted, running to him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Hey, Ma,” I heard him say.

When my mom and Enrique walked over to us, my dad took my brother’s bag out of his hands and patted him on the back. “Here he is!” my dad said. “My good son.”

I shrank a little. My mom looked at me with pity.

“How was the train?” my dad asked.

“Decent,” Enrique said, then punched me in the shoulder.

“Hey,” I said.

“What’s up, kid?”

We caught the bus back home, and when we arrived, my mom started preparations for Enrique’s favorite meal, which was pork tamales. She reminded him that we were going to church that night, but he begged off, saying he was tired and needed to catch up on sleep. I couldn’t believe it when my dad didn’t put up a fight. Instead, he just said, “Is the coach working you hard up there?”

“Yeah, Pop,” Enrique said.

You could count on my mom, though. “But it’s Christmas,” she argued. “One time a year, God would like to see your face. One time!”

“He doesn’t see it every day?” Enrique asked.

“In church,” my mom clarified. “He would like to see your face in church. And so would I.”

Enrique looked at my dad like, She can’t be serious, can she?

“He’s tired, Celia,” my dad said.

“He can be tired later.”

Enrique looked at my dad again, but this time my dad seemed resigned to the fact that there was no way he and Enrique would win this battle; my mom would wear them down eventually. “I tried,” he said halfheartedly.

Later, as I was getting dressed for Mass, Enrique knocked on my door.

“Why are you getting ready so early?” he asked when he saw me.

I didn’t tell him it was because I was eager to see Maribel, who I knew would be there. I had a feeling she wouldn’t measure up to my brother’s standards. I mean, if all he did was look at her, she would have made the grade, no problem. But if he knew the whole story…

“Nothing better to do,” I said.

He laughed. “Yeah. I heard about that. What did you do anyway? How did the angel child get grounded?”

My lip had pretty much healed by then—there was just a faint, kind of purplish line where the split had been—but I pointed it out to him anyway.

“I got in a fight.”

Enrique’s eyes widened. “You mean by accident?”

“Nope. I started it. I punched someone.”

“Man,” Enrique said. “You turned into a tough guy while I was gone.”

He sat on my bed and looked around like he was trying to figure out if anything had changed since the summer, which was the last time he’d been home.

“There’s no way I could live here again,” he said. “This place is so depressing. Every time I come back, it seems shittier.”

“It’s not that bad.”

Enrique chuckled. “That’s just because you don’t know any better.”

I got my clip-on tie out of the drawer and started to hook it to my collar.

“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” Enrique said. “All these rules. Like God cares whether or not you’re wearing a tie.”

“You used to wear a tie to church, too,” I said.

“Exactly. Used to. But I wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing now.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

My brother shook his head. “One day you’ll get out of here and you’ll see.”

I tried to imagine it, going off to college in a few years, walking into a life that was all my own, one where I didn’t have to wear a tie to church, one where I didn’t even have to go to church, where no one could ground me, and where I could do whatever I wanted.

I pulled the tie off and tossed it on the bed. “Fuck that,” I said, a little too loudly.

Enrique laughed. “That’s what I’m talking about!”

We rode the bus to midnight Mass with the Riveras, although Enrique sat all the way in the back, plugged in to his iPod, so it was basically like he wasn’t even there. The bus driver tuned the radio to the all-Christmas-music station, and when “Feliz Navidad” came on, I guess since we were the only people on the bus, he raised the volume and shouted back at us, “Here you go! A little piece of home for you!”

Under his breath, my dad said, “Every year the same thing. If it’s in Spanish, it’s a piece of home. Well, I never heard this song until I came to the United States.”

“And every year, you complain,” my mom said.

“You like this song?”

“No.”

“It’s like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don’t even eat tacos in Panamá!” my dad said.

“That’s right. We eat chicken and rice,” my mom said.

“And seafood. Corvina as fresh as God makes it.”

“Yes.”

This was one of the few things that could unite my parents, the thread that mended them: their conviction that no one else here understood Panamá the way they did.

I was sitting in front of them with my feet up on the seat, my dress socks pulled halfway up my calves. I had my coat zipped to my chin so that my mom wouldn’t see that I wasn’t wearing my tie. The Riveras were across the aisle from us.

“I like tacos,” I offered.

My mom sighed. “Why would you say such a thing?”

“What about you, Maribel?” I asked. “Do you like tacos?”

When she didn’t answer, I repeated the question, louder.

She was pressing the pad of her thumb against her incisors. She said, “My teeth are really sharp.”

“So you could eat a crunchy taco?” I asked.

“Okay,” she said.

My mom swatted my shoulder. “Leave her alone,” she said.

“I was just asking if she liked tacos.”

“I don’t know what that means,” my mom said.

“Tacos? It means tacos.”

“I don’t know if you mean something else by it now. All this
taco talk.”

That made me laugh. Taco talk. And as soon as I laughed, I realized I hadn’t done it in a long time—too long—and I remembered how good it felt, how it made my muscles warm and filled me up with the kind of lightness that was usually missing in my life, the kind of lightness that was buried under my parents’ bickering and under my awkwardness at school. I stared out the window into the dark, at the illuminated trail of streetlights streaking through the air, and laughed while everyone else on the bus stayed quiet.

Chris Ritter/BuzzFeed

The next morning, my mom brewed a pot of Café Ruiz—our annual treat—and brought out the rosca bread with almonds that she’d made the night before. Our apartment was decked out with the same tired decorations she displayed every year—angel figurines on the end tables, a crocheted snowman cozy that slid over the extra roll of toilet paper in the bathroom, a dried wreath with a red velvet bow that she hung over the kitchen doorway, a porcelain nativity scene on the floor. We hadn’t gotten a tree and, as threatened, I didn’t get any presents. Enrique didn’t exactly get a mountain of stuff either, unless a four-pack of deodorant and a new Gillette razor along with a bunch of replacement blades counted. “I’m not really into shaving anymore,” Enrique said when he opened them, and when I offered to take them he laughed and said, “Oh yeah. You can use them on that nonexistent hair above your lip.” Besides him, the only person who got a gift was my mom, and it was nothing more than a lousy set of shampoo and conditioner that my dad swore he bought at the salon even though anyone could see from the sticker on the back that he’d gotten it from the clearance shelf at Kohl’s. My mom placed the set on the coffee table. None of us mentioned the sticker.

My mom called my tía Gloria, only to learn that my aunt had finally decided to file for a divorce from my tío Esteban, news that sent my mom into a low-level state of shock, not because she hadn’t seen it coming but because of her adamant objection to divorce. Anyone’s divorce. But by the time the receiver was back on the latch, my mom was on a high from talking to her sister at all, which always cheered her at least for the short term until the cheer was displaced by missing her again.

Late in the morning, the radiators died, and my dad did what he always did—kick them and curse—until he gave up and plopped down on the couch. Not long after, the telephone rang. It was Sra. Rivera, calling my mom to tell her that the heat was out and to ask what they were supposed to do. My mom told her just to wait, that it would come back on eventually.

“The Riveras?” my dad asked from the couch when my mom hung up the phone. “I bet they’re freezing their asses off. They never thought they would leave México for this, I’m sure.”

“We should invite them over,” I said.

“Why?” my mom asked.

I seized up. Why? It wasn’t like we had heat either. What was I going to say? Just because I wanted to see Maribel? Because I’d bought her a present about a month ago, a red scarf that had cost me basically all of my allowance and that I’d wrapped in tissue paper and had been keeping under my bed for her, and now that I was grounded, I didn’t know how I was going to get it to her?

“We should invite everyone over,” I said. “The whole building. More body heat will warm everyone up.”

“Genius,” Enrique said sarcastically.

“It’s true,” I said. “It’s thermodynamics and radiation. They’ve proved it.”

But when Sra. Rivera called again at noon, concerned because the apartment was getting colder by the minute, my mom told them to stop by. Then she hung up and dialed Nelia and Quisqueya and told them to spread the word. She pulled out every candle we owned and lit match after match until the wicks were all burning with tiny flames. “It’s pretty like this, don’t you think?” she said, and I had to admit, it did look nice. Before she could brew another pot of coffee, people were knocking on our door, wishing us Merry Christmas and gripping bottles of rum in their gloved hands.

Everyone kept their coats and hats on. Quisqueya was wearing her fur hat on her head, which I always thought made her look Russian. Micho brought his camera, roaming around the apartment snapping pictures of everyone who was already there— Benny flashing the peace sign; Nelia sitting cross-legged on the couch, nursing a beer that my dad had given her; Quisqueya sitting next to her, pretending like she wasn’t interested in having her photo taken. When the Riveras showed up, Micho bunched the three of them together in front of our door and made them pose while he snapped a shot. Maribel stared right at the camera, but she didn’t smile, so I went up behind Micho, waving my arms and making goofy faces to see if she would react. When she cracked a grin, Micho said, “There we go! That was a good one.”

Not long after, José Mercado and his wife, Ynez, showed up, her gripping his elbow while he hobbled with his walker.

“Gustavo had to work,” Benny told my dad, even though my dad hadn’t asked. “Movie theater might be the only place that’s open on Christmas Day.”

“Hollywood doesn’t believe in God,” my dad said.

Benny laughed. “But God sure believes in Hollywood. Have you seen those women? Megan Fox? And the mouth on Angelina Jolie? God is in the details, man!”

My dad raised his beer. “¡Salud!”

“Despicable,” Quisqueya said.

Even our landlord, Fito Mosquito (that’s what I called him), stopped by long enough to poke his head in the front door and announce that Delmarva, the energy company, was on their way to fix the heat. “Don’t blame me!” he said.

“Don’t worry,” Micho shouted. “We won’t blame you. We’ll just deduct it from our rent checks this month!”

Fito wagged his finger, and a few people laughed.

Micho said, “We’re just teasing you, man. Come on inside.”

The radiators didn’t kick back on until late that night, but with all the people packed into our apartment that afternoon, it started to feel a little more like Christmas. Everyone shiver ing and laughing and drinking and talking. When we ran out of coffee, my mom mixed up huge pots of hot cocoa that she made from heavy cream and some chocolate bars she’d found in the back of a cabinet and melted down. Sr. Rivera asked if she had cinnamon sticks to put in the cups to make it Mexican style, and my mom found a jar of powdered cinnamon in a cabinet that she sprinkled into the pot.

“Are you happy now?” she joked. “It always has to be the Mexican way. México, México. As if the rest of us don’t exist.”

“¡Viva México!” Micho shouted from the corner of the room.

“¡México!” Arturo said.

“¡Panamá!” my dad said.

“¡Presente!” my mom said, and everyone laughed.

“¡Nicaragua!” Benny shouted. “¡Presente!”

“¡Puerto Rico!” José said.

“¡Presente!” Ynez and Nelia chimed at the same time.

“¡Venezuela!” shouted Quisqueya. “¡Presente!”

“¡Paraguay!” said Fito. “¡Presente!”

Then “Feliz Navidad” came on the radio.

“This goddamn song again!” my dad said.

“Oh, come on!” my mom said. She started singing along and swishing her hips while my dad eyed her skeptically.

What?” she said. “You don’t want to dance with me? Fine. Benny, ven.”

And Benny took my mom by the hand, spinning her around.

Ynez and José joined in, José leaning on his walker while he rocked back and forth, and Micho pulled Nelia up off the couch into a twirl. Almost everyone in the room started singing along and eventually my dad put his drink down and cut in on Benny and my mom, sliding his arm around her waist.

“Now this is more like it!” my dad yelled above the noise. “This is like the Christmases I knew!”

I took the dancing as the opening I’d been waiting for and stole Maribel away so that I could give her my present. We sat at the end of the hallway outside my bedroom where no one could see us, and I handed her the square lumpy package I had wrapped.

“You can open it,” I said. “It’s for you.” I felt nervous all of a sudden, like maybe it was too much or maybe she wouldn’t like it.

“It’s light,” she said, and I nodded, anxious for her to get on with it.

She pried off a piece of tape and folded open the tissue paper at one end. She held it up at eye level and squinted inside.

“It’s a scarf,” I said before she’d even pulled it out all the way. “It’s alpaca.”

She unfolded the whole thing and laced her fingers through the yarn fringe at the ends.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I picked out a red one so that it would match your sunglasses.”

“It’s so soft.”

“It’s alpaca,” I said again, like I was suddenly some kind of alpaca salesman or something.

She wrapped the scarf around her neck.

“I’m sorry I haven’t seen you,” I said. “My dad grounded me.”

“What is that?” she asked.

“It means he’s not letting me go anywhere besides school. Whatever. It’s not a big deal. I just wanted you to know why I haven’t been around.”

She nodded.

“I wanted you to know that it isn’t that I don’t want to see you.”

“Okay.”

Then, there in the shadows of the hallway, I kissed her. This strange electricity shot through my body. My first real kiss. Her skin was warm, and she smelled like laundry detergent and frost, as fresh as the winter air. She pulled away first, but she peeked at me and smiled. All I wanted was to do it again—to kiss her, to inhale her, to feel her mouth against mine. I was fuzzy with the thought of it, like I’d somehow slipped underwater. But then, from the living room, my dad started singing along in English: “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart,” warbling like a yodeler on “heart,” and Maribel giggled and the moment passed.

***

Cristina Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, The World In Half and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection. Her stories have been published in theNew Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI along with the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. She is currently running The Unknown Americans Project, which you can learn about here.

For more about information about The Book of Unknown Americans, click here.

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