Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Westside CAN Center Christmas

A Westside CAN Center Christmas

It’s Christmas Day, perhaps a little quieter than your house right now but Christmas Eve day was a happy chaos.

Christmas at the WCAN Center really began on Sunday with Matt Tomasic along with several of the day laborer regulars rode out to the farm to pick out two hogs to butcher for our holiday feast of the Mexican favorite, carnitas. In the past we’ve purchased the hog from a well-known meat market but by buying the pig-on-the-hoof we were able to buy two pigs for practically the price of one.

We’re going to skip over some details here and begin with the cooking of the pork meat. Carnitas are made by cooking the meat in boiling fat in a cauldron or caso that sits atop of a hot steady fire. A long wooden paddle stirs the meat. This begins in the darkness of the early morning of Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is the special day in Mexico – so we were celebrating Noche Buena.

Knowing we were going to have a full house, we sent some of the guys to borrow tables and chairs from the community center. At ten o’clock the first of the volunteers arrived. Soon the men took to the out-of-doors to get out of the way as the squad of volunteers came pouring through the doors carrying packages and boxes, guitars and poinsettia, steaming pots of frijoles charros and pans of rice Mexican style.

In a flurry, table cloths are flapping onto the tables, Mrs. Melgoza, the Commandant of the kitchen arena issues orders and instructions, knives become blurry chopping and slicing tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro for the pico de gallo and pineapples for the agua fresca Salsa is poured into bowls and someone is appointed to warm up mountains of fresh tortillas. The music is plugged in, the beans and rice are set on the stove to stay hot.

One more trip to the store for more tomatoes, a trip to Abuela Melgoza’s house for more pots, another takes a trip for more paper plates. Aromas of home fill the air, invited guests begin to arrive. And, we wait for the cocinero de las carnitas to pronounce that the meat is ready.

Music from Uzziel Pecina and friends eases the wait, music of Christmas and music of Mexico and a little rock’n roll. Santa Claus suddenly appears to oversee a raffle where everyone is a winner of a gift brings a smile and memories of childhood Christmases.

With great fanfare, Fernando makes the official announcement; the aluminum lined storage tub filled to the brim with succulent morsels of pork meat is carried with great deference from the caso to the table. Mouths are watering; all eyes are focused on the tub.

The men are treated as cherished, invited guests; their awkwardness fades under the genuine warmth, caring and regard of the Christmas volunteers. The packed room becomes silent. We miss Mr. Tomas Melgoza, he usually says grace but he is under the weather. Two of the men say grace. The Christmas meal can begin.

Fernando disappears back to his cauldron to continue cooking the rest of the meat. These were two big pigs. Guests popped up to watch the process. The kids were fascinated with the pigs heads perched on the table.

Friends and supporters of the WCAN Center stopped by some stayed to eat, some to offer their Christmas wishes or bearing gifts/donations. Even the 2 dogs, Negro and Duchess and the cat Xena The Princess Warrior were remembered.

As many of the men wandered off to return to the shelters for a bed for the evening or their homes or their camps, the volunteers sprung into action to pack up and clean up to get to their homes to prepare for their own Christmases. As quickly as they came, they were gone.

The final clean up began, the borrowed tables and chairs are ready to be returned, the furniture arranged to their usual posts, the floor is swept. Tin foil lids sparkle over the leftovers. Christmas Day is going to be a feast as well.

It was dark and the moon was rising as I left Fernando and a small trusted crew of ayudantes, tending the fire and the caso – it was now time to cook the chicharones.

First thing this morning, Christmas Day, we placed Baby Jesus in our crèche outside, gently nestled in the straw between Mary and Joseph. Felipe who is deaf and unable to speak did the honor.

The men have dined and grazed all day and are watching movies. They’re taking turns using the phone wishing family members a “Feliz Navidad.” In turn their families are relieved that their loved one is not alone and not hungry and not cold.

And for tomorrow, they are hopeful that tomorrow will be a day with work.

Thank you again to the Melgoza Family and Friends for making a beautiful Christmas for the day laborers. Our sincerest thanks and appreciation to all who contributed.

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