Well Researched Pasteladas

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Between the research, data, and cultural practices we read, write, tell you about, we are always amazed by the strong presence of Puerto Rican culture stateside. From bomba classes and street festivals to parades and coquito competitions, Puerto Ricans stateside have long found ways to keep culture alive. The holidays offer a particularly ripe opportunity to enjoy a piece of the island. We have begun to explore just how Puerto Ricans across the nation celebrate the holidays through our research on coquito and pasteles. Yet, we have only begun to scratch the surface on this subject. For instance, what would a coquito competition look like in Ohio? Where do people in North Carolina celebrate Día de Reyes? While we look to chip away at these queries in future years, this year we looked at the very important question of where on earth Puerto Ricans in different states get their pasteles? As the research center of all things stateside Puerto Ricans that we are, we thought it fitting to share with you much culture sprinkled with a little bit of academia. Hence, we begin to answer this question with information shared by a cadre of Puerto Rican scholars living stateside. We asked them where they got their pasteles and to share with us some stories about celebrating stories in their particular state. We are thankful for their generosity in sharing with us their tales of pasteles and celebrating the holidays on this side of the charco. We hope you enjoy their stories and can find some ideas to continue celebrating the holidays, Puerto Rican style. May your table be filled with pasteles esta navidad!

P.S. Read on as we finish with a treat of Centro’s own Harry Franqui Rivera’s pastelada.


San Diego, CALIFORNIA

Description: zentellaAna Celia Zentella, University of California–San Diego.

Suset Laboy: Where do you and your family get their pasteles from in California? Any particular stories you may share with us about pasteles getting/making back home?

Ana Celia: ​My sister's pasteles just arrived from Queens yesterday​, and a Puerto Rican friend in California warned me that the New York pasteles he has eaten can break your teeth because they include olives with the stone in it​! But that has never happened to me in all my life there, so I assume it is California lore. Only problem is that they arrive defrosted, and last year we weren’t home when they were delivered, and the Southern California sun wreaked havoc. The year before, that she didn't pack them in heavy plastic and they soaked right thru the package. But they are delicious, bien sabrosos; to hell con la dieta.

Closer to home, a woman from Ponce, makes 30 dozen [!!] delicious pasteles for our Casa Puerto Rico participation in December Nights in San Diego's beautiful Balboa Park, and another 30 for the Christmas gala in a ​fancy​ downtown hotel, when we dance salsa, sing aguinaldos, and eat pasteles, pernil, ​and ​arroz con gandules (250 people!​, I take my own botellita de coquito, and NO, you cannot have the receta​) ​and believe it or not, two years ago this vieja began to take cuatro lessons at the Casita that the organization Casa Puerto Rico has built in Balboa Park, and where visitors can visit and learn about Puerto Rican culture every Sunday. I will play "Saludos, saludos," "Hermoso bouquet," "Alegre vengo, and "Alegría alegría" at the Christmas gala, si dios quiere. Of course, since most of our friends here are Mexicans from our church, our Christmas celebrations always begin with a Dec 11 mariachi and sung prayers welcome to La Virgen de Guadalupe, where tamales are traditional. (But I keep the pasteles for us!)


Hartford, CONNECTICUT

Description: Charles R. Venator Santiago

Charles R. Venator Santiago, University of Connecticut.

Suset Laboy: Where do you and your family get their pasteles from in Connecticut? Any particular stories you may share with us about pasteles getting/making back home? 

Charles: I left Puerto Rico more than two decades ago and still receive a care package from the island every year with a range of different types of pasteles (including more recently with cod fish/bacalao). My aunts, who live in Connecticut and Massachusetts, occasionally find pasteles for me, but I still receive most of my treasure from the island, mostly from friends who are thankful for one thing or another.

In Hartford, I can generally look for pasteles in the local restaurants (Aqui me quedo or Comerio.) El Mercado in Park Street is also a place to look. However, the typical source of pasteles is generally a friend of a friend.

Suset: How does the Puerto Rican community where you are upholds the traditions of the holidays? What new traditions have you created that speak specifically to the stateside Puerto Rican experience? 

Charles: In Connecticut, individuals tend to carve a space around their businesses (Park Street, etc.) or their organizations. Gift giving continues to be popular on the 24th of December and during the Three Kings Day celebration in Hartford. 

On a more personal level, I make and share coquito, have celebratory meals, watch the Banco Popular videos, and this year I am trying to convince my 3-year old to pick some grass for the Three Kings' camels. He has a bit of a materialist view of the world and does not believe that plastic figures can fly or move on their own or with any assistance of magic, but he is looking forward to receiving more gifts, so he is willing to entertain my attempts to affirm some myths.


Orlando, FLORIDA

Description: RiveraFernando Rivera, University of Central Florida.

Suset Laboy: Where do you and your family get their pasteles in Florida?

Fernando: We usually get our pasteles from my mother-in-law “la suegra” and family, when they come visit us in Florida from Puerto Rico. This year the pasteles were made to order by a lady who makes them in Mayagüez. They were frozen, packed, and wrapped in towels on the carry-on luggage. They took the trip from Cabo Rojo to the airport in Aguadilla, passed the USDA scanner, and onto the early morning flight to Orlando. After a short drive, they sit pleasantly in my freezer, waiting for family and friends to eat them for the Christmas Eve “Noche Buena” diner.

Suset: Any particular stories you may share with us about pasteles getting/making back home?

Fernando: Pasteles are the staple of the Puerto Rican holiday season. The most memorable story was when my in-laws had the pasteles shipped overnight when my wife was pregnant and we couldn’t travel to Puerto Rico, they were the most expensive, but most exquisite pasteles that we have ever eaten.

Suset: How does the Puerto Rican community where you are upholds the traditions of the holidays?

Fernando: Living in Central Florida with access to a large Puerto Rican population has its advantages. During the holidays, most restaurants offer special meals for the holidays, churches offer Spanish services and sign traditional Puerto Rican Christmas carols, “villancicos”, and the guiro y maracas make their appearance. Lechoneras will have special Sunday menus, with traditional roasted pigs “lechon a la vara” and traditional holiday songs and dances.

Suset: What new traditions have you created that speak specifically to the stateside Puerto Rican experience?

Fernando: I have adapted the Puerto Rican traditions to more traditional continental U.S. traditions. Thus, for instance, I will play Christmas songs in English on the radio when driving with the family, but make sure to balance it with some traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs. During the holiday season, my kids enjoy singing “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano, which allows them to sing in both Spanish and English, and maintain a sense of Puerto Rican identity while living the U.S.


Ann Arbor, MICHIGAN

Larry La Fountain-Stokes, University of Michigan.

Suset: Where do you and your family get their pasteles from in Michigan? Any particular stories you may share with us about pasteles getting/making back home?

Larry: I don't eat pasteles in Michigan. Only tamales. There are no pasteles here! My mom always wants me to bring them frozen from Puerto Rico, but I get lazy about it. I eat pasteles in Puerto Rico and New York!

There really isn't much of a Puerto Rican community in Michigan. There's simply some poor lost souls que nos hacemos compañía. We get together when we can. I rarely, almost never spend Christmas in Michigan. Siempre vuelo a la isla. Conseguir un pernil en Michigan no es fácil, hay que hablar con el carnicero. You have to special order pork shoulder because it is not a cut of meat that they regularly sell in the supermarket. Some people have their families send them boxes of food from Puerto Rico. If you are really desperate you can drive three hours to Lorrain, Ohio, or drive four hours to Chicago. Para Thanksgiving hago pavochón y lo relleno de carne molida con amarillos, nueces y pasas. ¡Queda bueno!


Poughkeepsie, NEW YORK

Harry Franqui Rivera, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY.

Suset Laboy: Where do you and your family get their pasteles from in New York? Any particular stories you may share with us about pasteles getting/making back home?

Harry: I don't buy pasteles. I bugged my mom quite a few times until she taught me the whole process which, as a scholar I filmed, and then reproduced that very same day. I actually taught my mother-in-law how to make them. I'm the only one of 11 brothers and sisters who learned how to make them. And from a master pastelera…

Last year was the first time I made them in the U.S. and it was a group effort. We made so many and boiled so many—rookie mistake. But people ate them and took dozens home.

Suset: How does the Puerto Rican community where you are uphold the traditions of the holidays? What new traditions have you created that speak specifically to the U.S. Puerto Rican experience?

Harry: I'm up here in Poughkeepsie, and I usually travel to PR during Christmas. This year I'm staying and we are celebrating Reyes (which is something we always do for the kids. We don't send them to school that day). We also have the pastelada, which even though last year was the first, well let’s say I called it annual for a reason.

Somehow the Elf on the Shelve made it into our tradition, but I make him wear a pava so he is culturally competent.

And of course we have all the navidad plena music playing the whole season (and don't forget my legendary boricua-asian fusion pernil and abuela style arroz con gandules).


Teresita Levy (Lehman College, CUNY) looks on as Harry Franqui-Rivera works on his pasteles.
For more photos click on the image.


Hero image and photographs of the pastelada courtesy of Ariel Zavala.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 18 December 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.