As a Child of Mexican Immigrants, This Is Why Secret Santa Is So Special to Me

published Dec 14, 2021
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Credit: Bill Perry/

Like many families last year, Christmas with my big Mexican family took a huge blow. In unprecedented times, cancelling our family’s annual reunion felt like the right call, especially since the tradition involves traveling to Mexico from Houston, Texas. Every year since I was born, I’ve made the nine-hour drive to Parás, Nuevo León, with my parents. As I’ve gotten older, my trips have become shorter, and I began flying back to Houston earlier and alone, but I always make it a point to spend Nochebuena in Parás, where I belong.

Growing up, that idea — of belonging, and of home — felt mythical. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, and I often felt stuck between two very different worlds. There’s a term for this feeling of displacement among Spanish-speaking immigrants and Americans: “ni de aquí, ni de allá,” which literally translates to neither from here, nor there. It’s something my maternal cousins and I have bonded over through the years, especially given that we are the first generation in my mother’s family to have been born in the United States. My mom and her siblings immigrated within five years of one another, and all five of them made certain their children stayed connected to their heritage, teaching us the language and immersing us in the customs. Getting together for Christmas in Parás every year wasn’t just coming home for them, but a way of building a home in Mexico for us kids, no matter how fleeting.

The big excitement always revolved around the big intercambio that included all 10 children, all five aunts and uncles plus their spouses, and my mom’s parents. We’d pull out names from a bowl months ahead, and exchange gifts at Pita’s on Christmas Eve. 

But the gift-giving was hardly the main event: No one was allowed to attend to their duties in the kitchen or go anywhere near the presents before we ate dinner and played several rounds of lotería, during which all gloves would come off. (Even the kids were allowed to gamble with real money!) The sounds of cumbias, corridos, Vicente Fernandez, and “Mi Burrito Sabanero” would fill Pita’s house and could be heard across the street in the town square. After the suspense of secret Santa, we’d tear a piñata full of candy and goodies in the backyard. And when the bell for midnight mass rang for curfew, we’d run with pockets full of sweets to the plaza to set off fireworks we had purchased on the other side of the U.S./Mexico border — from the same hut, every year.

Traveling back to Houston always felt like a phantom limb. Setting foot on American land again was returning to the in-between. It carved out a piece of me so big I felt like I could float away. Pita’s was the only place I didn’t feel the struggle of my dual identity. I had nothing to prove and no expectations to meet. Navidad with my cousins is the only place I’ve ever felt still. 

In 2009, our parents called that secret Santa our last. We were getting older: Some of us were in college, others starting families of their own. It was easier for our parents to let go, and they figured the same was true for us — that when we grew up, we would want to make holiday practices of our own. Yet the thought of a Nochebuena outside of Pita’s left me feeling untethered, and I wasn’t the only one. For a significant portion of my life, my cousins were the only people I felt like I could relate to and be truly understood by. What was more, our abuelo had passed earlier in the year, and it already felt like we had lost so much. Losing the intercambio was a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but it was one in which we had the say.

So my cousins and I decided to reimagine our old tradition, just for ourselves. Every year, we would hold a secret Santa strictly between cousins — and no matter where we might be and with whom, we promised that we would make it back to Pita’s on or around Christmas Eve for the exchange. We’ve all stayed true to our word, with in-law cousins joining in on the fun as they enter the family. With a $20 cap (plus the cost of travel), it’s not about the gifts, but about being with each other and staying connected to our roots.

It’s hard to recall most of the gifts exchanged between us in the last 11 years, but I can vividly remember each night we’ve celebrated the holiday together. In 2011, Carolina threatened Danny with a rolling pin after he let slip in front of Tío Meme about how she and I used to sneak out to meet boys during our teenage years. In 2014, I threw up in the fideo ensalzado because I had thought it a good idea to start drinking micheladas at 10 that morning. (The lecture about my unbecoming behavior that night was as brutal as the hangover the next morning.) In 2019, we all pitched in for a new couch for Pita.

Everything and nothing is the same every year. Caro now has a family of four, and Raúl has two little girls. Memito is in charge of lighting the fireworks because he is “the oldest here,” as he reminds us every year. We all still trample over Roy and Reynol for candy. Samantha and I both have our noses in some book. Nobody knows where David is. We are all home. 

This year, we’re getting boosters and quarantining ahead of our gathering. After having to break our promise in 2020, I’m even looking forward to Pita’s sisters quickly popping into the backyard for a visit that quickly turns into an inquisition centered on that dreaded question: “¿Y el novio?” The glasses of vampiros and mugs of spiked champurrado will have to runneth over — and celebrating Navidad the way I love it best will make any lecture on dying a solterona worth it.

It’s taken a few years for me to put it into words, but I realized along the way that for my cousins and me, Christmas has been as much about gathering the scattered pieces of home and putting them together for one night as any other reason for the season. It’s liberating — a place for us to just be who we are, and for us to be in the same room as the people who accept us accordingly.

I can already taste the tamales, frijoles charros, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and turkey — a perfectly emblematic combination of the two very different worlds I call home. Mostly, I’m looking forward to the fireworks. Looking up at the explosions in the sky after every piñata never fails to make me feel like I did when I was a kid. Like I’m right where I belong.