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Associated Press

Puerto Rico's Caroling Tradition Dwindles

Rowdy carolers in Puerto Rico have long staged annual night raids on homes, eating and drinking lustily. But wary people are less welcoming.


December 26, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Winding through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, dozens of revelers burst into Charles Juhasz's home around midnight with a shout of ``Parranda!''

The party goes from house to house, shaking maracas, scratching out rhythms on gourds and singing Christmas carols. Along the way, the carolers drink as much rum as residents are prepared to offer.

``This is the best parranda in San Juan,'' said Juhasz, a 38-year-old artist. ``It's an assault. They come and eat and drink everything.''

The centuries-old Caribbean tradition, in which residents offer food and drink in exchange for a song, is still alive in this U.S. territory. But it has dwindled as Puerto Rico copes with rising crime and people become fearful of opening their homes to strangers.

People used to randomly choose houses for a parranda. The residents, rudely awakened, would improvise a meal or lavish carolers with food and drink if they had prepared ahead of time.

But with rising crime and an increase in the numbers of gated communities, many parrandas have to be planned well in advance, says Juan Montalvo of the Puerto Rican Culture Institute.

Puerto Rico's homicide rate is higher per capita than most of the United States with 774 killings in 2002. Since January alone, there have been 765 homicides on the island of less than 4 million people.

By comparison, New York, with about 8 million residents, had 584 homicides last year.

``There isn't the same spontaneity,'' says Montalvo. ``There are fears of entering a neighborhood you don't know and crime contributes to that.''

Juhasz is a case in point. He helped organize Tuesday's parranda, inviting a select group of artists. Platters of food were waiting.

While some young Puerto Ricans say they still surprise friends and throw real parrandas, others acknowledge the changing times.

``There are fewer small ones,'' said John Feith, 28, a computer programmer. ``Now it's a giant party. It used to be more of a surprise.''

Parrandas were first chronicled in an 1853 book by author Manuel Alonso, but probably started earlier in the 19th century during the Spanish colonial period, Montalvo said. They usually start around late November and carry on through mid-January.

Typically, food at a parranda consists of a large chicken soup called sopon, accompanied by blood sausages called morcilla and pasteles -- a mixture of mashed green plantains, meat, chickpeas, olives and peppers wrapped like a brick in a plantain leaf and boiled.

Revelers wash the food down with Puerto Rico's version of eggnog called coquito, a blend of coconut milk, eggs, rum, vanilla and cinnamon.

Many songs are religious and tied to Christmas but others center on drinking with one verse: ``If they don't give me anything to drink, I cry.''

College adviser Iraiea Alvarado, 65, remembers as a child visiting the houses in the southern city of Caguas just outside San Juan, and staying up until past 5 a.m. A nostalgic Alvardo laments that those days are gone.

``Crime is hurting the parranda,'' she said. ``People don't invite you to their homes anymore. You don't like to be surprised anymore -- unless you know who's coming.''

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