Leslie D. Rodríguez Méndez

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THE RHYTHM OF CHRISTMAS –

I remember being a little girl, really skinny, with long, black, straight hair. Sundays were the days when my dad would pile us all into his brown Buick and take us shopping in Mayagüez. By “us all,” I mean my father, my mother, my older brother, and me.

On our way back to Cabo Rojo, we always stopped at my grandparents’ house. As we approached, I often found myself wishing my grandpa was home when we stopped. Often he wasn’t. It was because he was an artisan and spent many hours a day making musical instruments with his own hands and selling them in town. I think it was more like a hobby than work for him because he was very passionate about it and took a great deal of time to craft each instrument. He had many clients, especially when Christmas approached. He usually sold his instruments around his neighborhood, but people from out of town would come looking for him too.

In the photograph, my grandfather wears his pava, a peculiar hat made of straw to protect himself from the hot sun. He’s dressed typically, in a clean cotton t-shirt and his polished, black boots. He travels around town every day to sell his instruments in an old shopping cart someone gave him as a present.

His workshop was his small back yard, lush with trees and grass. There he made bombos of all sizes, tamboras, maracas, and güiros. These instruments form an essential part of our music traditions in Puerto Rico. We play them at the festive parrandas and for other holidays and get-togethers.

The güiros comes from a climbing plant called higüera, which my grandfather grew in his yard, but I can hardly remember it. He made a hole in the güiros when they were ripe. I remember he had an ancient, hardwood table where he laid the güiros and maracas to dry for many weeks. He covered them with an old door screen to keep small animals, and bugs away from them.

After the instruments dried, he prepared them. For a güiro, he had to cut some straight, vertical lines across it with a pocketknife. To play the güiros, we use something similar to a fork. He prepared it with a small, rectangular piece of wood and he added a few bicycle spokes that the neighbors had given him. My grandfather filled the maracas with a seed we call pirinolas and then glued a wooden stick in them for a handle

Near his house was an old, green store where he bought everything he needed for his instruments such as aluminum tensors for the bombos and tamboras. For the bombos and tamboras he used large empty cookie cans and goat leather.  The bombos required the goat leather of a female on one side and that of a male on the other because one sound is finer than the other.

The tamboras only needed one type of goat leather. He peeled the hide off the goat carcass with a piece of glass and then he hung them to dry. Then he cut the leather to size and prepared the instruments. I remember that most of the time he used a red paint for the bombos, and sometimes he also added white dots. I don’t know why he painted them red, maybe because red was his favorite color or the color of Christmas.

It has been seven years since he passed away but he still lives in the heart of every person who knew him, especially our family. When people from his neighborhood ask me about who is my family I proudly say, “You remember Papi, the man who used to sell musical instruments? He was my grandfather.”

I wish I could remember more about him, his smell, and his soft voice. I don’t remember ever seeing him angry or yelling, not even once. Neither do I remember any kind of expressions or emotions coming from him. It’s really sad I can’t remember those little details. But there is one thing for sure; he will always live in my heart especially at Christmas time. My Puerto Rican roots are defined by him, and with him and his musical instruments – the spirit of the Puerto Rican Christmas lasted all year long.

3 Comments

  1. Very captivating story. I really like how you described everything and it was very easy to read. I can relate to you because my grandfather also use to make our native “el cuatro” guitars and he used to play them to us while singing to make us laugh and entertain us. Very nice story.

  2. Wow, you grandfather inspired me. I want to make musical instrument also. I didn’t knew him, but I can say that he was a great man. Great story, I really liked it.

  3. Great description of every single detail. I really loved the way you portray everything. The picture of your grandfather was a very essential part, it gave me a lot of emotions. Congratulations on your work!

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