For all the political limbo Puerto Ricans have endured in the last 500 years, one thing is clear: come Christmas, we’ll cook lechón asado, improvise patriotic trovas, and drink pitorro. Despite the pervasiveness of American capitalism and influence on the archipelago, Navidad is a piece of Puerto Rican culture that hasn’t perished at the mercy of U.S.-style malls and English-language pop songs.
While the season is a time of reverence in Christianity, Christmas in Puerto Rico is also synonymous with patriotism. It’s the one time a year when we fully acknowledge—no matter what political party or ideology we are aligned with—that we are proud to be Puerto Rican. Despite our colonial status, we enter a boricua utopia where music comes from a cuatro—the Puerto Rican autochthonous guitar—and food is arroz con gandules. In doing so, we’ve made Santa Claus and the Three Kings—the Christmas traditions we’ve inherited from the United States and Spain—mere commodities of the season, not the protagonists.
We revel in this boricua Eden as long as possible; after all, Puerto Rico is famous for having the longest holiday season, spanning from Thanksgiving Day to las octavitas, which is celebrated in mid-January. It’s as if come the new year, we don’t want to wake up to the realities of an oversight board, a second-class citizenship, two national anthems, and an economic crisis—just listen to our música navideña.
I grew up in a family that heralded música navideña as one of its main pillars. Every Christmas party included hours-long sessions of trova and aguinaldos. Tío Gerardo was on the cuatro, my primo Gerardito on the guitar, and my primo Luigi was the musical director. We’d sing through our well-rehearsed repertoire that started with “El Coquí” by Danny Rivera, a call to Puerto Ricans to preserve our culture and traditions amid colonialism, and came to height with “Canción de la Serranía” by Tony Croatto, an ode to the archipelago’s rural working class. At some point in the night, tío Victor would stand in the middle of the crowd to sing the revolutionary anthem “Coño Despierta Boricua” by Andrés Jiménez; other times, titi Magie would sing a solo of the poor man’s “Allá en la Altura” by Francisco Roque Muñoz.
Looking back, this repertoire was the foundation of my own Puerto Rican patriotism, one that fuels nostalgia for the days of trullas and fogón from my current apartment in Manhattan. Every year, come November, I turn to the tunes of my childhood via a Spotify playlist, listening to songs like “Cantares de Navidad” by el Trío Vegabajeño, “Alegre Vengo,” and “Dame La Mano, Paloma.” And I’m not alone.
This repertoire was the foundation of my own Puerto Rican patriotism.
Growing up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Johnny Irizarry remembers there was always music playing in the background during the Christmas season. “We listened to salsa the most and some merengue,” he says. “But, at some point in the night, Asalto Navideño—the Christmas album by Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe—would come on.” This two-part album series—released in 1970 and 1973, respectively—are at the core of many Puerto Rican Christmas celebrations. It combines trova and salsa traditions in songs that evoke both the joy and patriotic sentiment of the season. In “Canto a Borinquen,” Lavoe professes his love for Puerto Rico, saying, “Borinquen, soy tu hijo y no voy a olvidarte.” Today, much like Lavoe in the ‘70s, Irizarry lives in Florida. But he still turns to trova and Christmas classics to engulf his nostalgic feelings for home with songs like “Defensa al Jíbaro,” written by Quique Domenech and performed by Tony Croatto, “El arbolito” by El Gran Combo, and “Aires de Navidad” by Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón. “I think it influences that love and pride toward la patria, toward the people that build it every day,” he says.
Press play on any Puerto Rican Christmas record, and you’ll find a reference to the archipelago’s history and traditions. Unlike U.S. Christmas music, which relies heavily on the image of peace, tranquility, family, and Christianity, Puerto Rican música navideña is sprinkled with folkloric and political connotations. Take, for example, “El Coqui,”' one of the archipelago’s most popular Christmas songs, which urges boricuas to preserve their traditions, from music like danza and bomba to the calls of the coquí. “Tienes que preservar tú la tradición porque si no el coquí no cantará,” the chorus reads. “Yo soy como el coquí que me amanezco, que la noche va alegrando, que en Borinquen he vivido, que soy nativo de aquí, coquí.”
Then, there’s also trova, a folkloric musical tradition that was born in Cuba but adopted by rural Puerto Rican communities. It relies on written and improvised poetry, as well as instruments like the cuatro, to narrate stories about daily struggles of life in el campo, patriotic sentiment, and political consciousness. According to statistics by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, the genre generates more than $23 million annually with 70-plus festivals performed across the archipelago. Still, come November, trova becomes synonymous with Christmas.
Puerto Rican música navideña is sprinkled with folkloric and political connotations.
As a kid, I always marveled at my cousins’ talent to come up with original décimas; some were rehearsed and others were improvised, but every single one evoked a sense of pride in the traditions we carried and our national identity. There were also songs that taught me to value el campo and its ways of life. In “Allá en la altura,” for example, lyricist Francisco Roque Muñoz contrasts the luxuries of modern life with the rustic lifestyle of rural Puerto Rico, saying, “Yo vivo aquí en la altura mejor que un adinerado.” Others like Andrés Jimenez’s “Coño Despierta Boricua” and “La Estrella Sola” push back against colonialism and rally Puerto Ricans to look for a better future independently. All of this in the middle of Christmas dinner.
For Patricia Ruiz, música navideña shaped how she identifies as a Puerto Rican today. Growing up in Yauco, Puerto Rico, Ruiz says she felt a strong affinity to “Villancico Yaucano.” The song, popularized by Danny Rivera, narrates a Yaucano’s devotion for Jesus, as well as his town pride, saying, “Soy del pueblo del café, por si quieres dos saquitos, también, yo, te los traeré.” While she now lives in Texas and married an American, she says the best way to teach her community and her husband about where she comes from is have them listen to Puerto Rican Christmas carols.
“Explaining our history to him through music makes me feel so good,” she says. “I’m sure that once we have kids it’ll be the same and will continue to be an important part of our family.”