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The Boston Globe

Puerto Rican Fiesta Becomes A Tradition


December 4, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

I love many things about Boston's holiday season: twinkling lights reflecting on the snow on commonwealth avenue, ice skating on the frog pond, roaming downtown crossing for that perfect gift, and celebrating the season at El Jolgorio Navideno, a Puerto Rican holiday celebration. It started 15 years ago with a few guests gathering at the home of founder Jaime Rodriguez, who left Puerto Rico in 1973 for a masters degree in education administration at Harvard. The goal was "to add some heat to the winter and rescue our cultural roots."

Today, thanks to what Rodriguez refers to as "radio bemba" (loose- lipped radio), more than a thousand guests attend each year.

Jolgorio (hole-gore-ee-o) translates literally to binge or fun. But for Rodriguez, who after finishing his degree began studying the social consequences of war at the William Joiner Center at UMASS Boston, Jolgorio has no simple definition.

"it's a Christmas party that originates in [Puerto Rico's] countryside. Anything can happen, from food to gifts, from music to surprises, including people who show up without an invitation."

No invitation? That's right. Casualness is what makes a Jolgorio special. Last year, after standing in line listening to a choir singing carols in Spanish, the arroz con gandules with pernil asao' (roasted pork shoulder) was served on paper plates with plastic utensils. The same will happen this year. "we're not trying to be fancy," rodriguez notes. "this is how los jibaros, the people from the countryside, do it."

But when it comes to fashion, casualness is gone faster than a tray of morcillas (Puerto Rican sausage) served to a bunch of starving carolers.

"People must dress elegantly, it doesn't matter whether you make $100,000 or $10,000," Rodriguez says. "nobody cares because everyone seems to earn the same. They mingle and that's what's important."

Talk about mingling. "El Jolgorio is the `who's who' of Boston's Latin community," Hector Pina, owner of Merengue Restaurant, told me at last year's Jolgorio. And although the term "who's who" for el Jolgorio sounds a bit showy to Rodriguez, he says that Latin politicians attend this celebration: "you see [latin politicians] acting like common people. They dance, jump, eat, and talk to anyone."

This year El Jolgorio is dec. 20 at the Moseley Ballroom in Dedham. The $25 admission includes a plate of rice and pigeon peas, roasted pork shoulder, pasteles (Puerto Rican tamales), and green salad, all prepared by parishioners from St. Andrew's in Jamaica Plain. They did the cooking last year, and the whole experience can be summarized in one word: "delicioso." a cash bar serving alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks will also be available.

Music begins at 9 p.m. with performances by Los Pleneros del Coco (Puerto Rican bomba and plena); trio Alma de Barrio (bolero guitar trio); conjunto alma Latina (Latin Christmas music sextet); and Gian Carlo Buscaglia y Balaton (cuban son-style sextet). A DJ will play jibaro music in between acts.

Each year, a cuatro (a 10-string violin-shaped instrument considered a tradition of Puerto Rican holidays) gets raffled. And adding a twist to the Jolgorio of the tropical mountains, the Boston version includes a ceremony recognizing individuals who have done remarkable work with the Latin community.

For Rodriguez, El Jolgorio is not only a means to preserve Puerto Rican traditions but also a way to promote creativity. The program writers in residence, Rodriguez's brainchild, is supported by El Jolgorio's profits.

In April, the international month of poetry, Rodriguez brings 10 Hispanic writers to Boston schools with a significant population of Latino students. Last year, Sonia Rivera-Valdes (author of "Las Historias Prohibidas de Marta Veneranda"), and other writers spent a week with students discussing poetry, novels, and short stories. Students work on their own literary creations, and at the end of the week, they read their work at UMASS.

So for this year's holiday season, eat, network, dance, win a prize, help foster creativity among Latino youth - or just play fashion police. There are plenty of reasons to add El Jolgorio Navideno to your list of Boston's holiday favorite traditions. For me, it's all of the above.

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