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Finding Christmas

As I stepped through the sliding doors, Quito took my breath away — the clear suddenness of mountains, the low oxygen level at 9,000 feet. Indian women with babies strapped to their backs, and children with dirty faces and hungry hands danced bee lines around travelers spilling from the airport and asked for handouts.

Ecuador isn’t my homeland, but this wasn’t my first visit. I assumed my mother’s Latin blood pumping through my veins automatically established an innate understanding of this land of extremes.

A juxtaposition of old and new, remnants of Spain’s 300-year rule over the “land of the equator” protrudes from colonial-style cathedral walls and peer out from still well-defined social class lines. From ashtray-black beaches in the north to rain forests and mountains shrouded in mist and mystery, Ecuador is a biosphere of seemingly untapped resources. While petroleum and bananas are two of its most profitable exports, traditional Latin American values — familial closeness and religion — crystallized in a month of Christmas celebrations exemplified the Ecuadorian people as the country’s most valuable resource.

It was the first time I met them. My mother’s first cousin and childhood friend, Pachi, visited my family’s Florida home while visiting the United States a few years ago. To me, he was some long-lost cousin with whom my communications consisted of Spanglish courtesies and smiling a lot. She had a lot of cousins I didn’t know.

Now, 13 years after my family had last visited Ecuador, Pachi, his wife and their three teenage children happily doubled their household count, welcoming us with open arms, excited smiles and kisses on each cheek. We were to call them Pachi and Tanyita — endearing Spanish nicknames for Patricio and Tanya.

The next night was the beginning of Novena — the first of the nine days before Christmas. Ten of us crowded on couches around the nacimiento (nativity scene) set up in the family room, in front of a lightly decorated Christmas tree.

Traditionally, Ecuadorians kick off a month of celebrations by offering prayers, singing Christmas songs or going to mass.

Roman Catholic by tradition, Pachi and Tanyita weren’t religious. At least, they didn’t go to church.

Tanyita started by offering up her thanks for her home, jobs and blessings of the passing year. With tears in her brown doe eyes, she looked at us and thanked God for family — for being able to spend Christmas with us.

Like a roundtable Thanksgiving dinner, nearly everyone said what he or she was grateful for. Tears were contagious and 12-year-old Pachi Jr. looked down and shyly refused.

Suddenly, I felt ungrateful. I had not expected this instant outpouring of love from people I met only hours ago. Sure, we were blood related, but who spilled tears over second cousins?

Neither flashy lights nor inflatable snowmen nor Santa Claus effigies adorned their house. Even if there were gifts, they wouldn’t fit under the two-foot-tall tree.

This was the first year of my financially responsible adult life that I did not feel pressured to succumb to the temptation of a seasonal gift rush. Christmas was more than an excuse to spend money.

It would be different here.

Christmas Eve morning in Cuenca, the market came alive as vendors dressed their makeshift stands with handcrafted blouses, chompas (jackets), bolsas (purses), jewelry and endless rows of color.

Flower merchants seemed quietly preoccupied — the middle-aged women hustling to an increasingly urgent church bell soundtrack in native orange, green and bright pink pleated skirts.

Schools were closed and many stayed home from work. But the sun couldn’t seem to rise fast enough as men and women trickled from every corner of the city into the cool dawn, threading through the town square and into the cathedral for the day’s events.

After a morning of fresh fruit, bread, cheese and shopping the cultural capital, I caught glimpses of parade participants such as shadows turning the street corners: A tiny girl in lipstick and a colonial-style skirt made of shiny-wrapper-candies perched atop frills and a white horse; A truck bed of restless kindergarteners pulled over for a pit stop.

Following the music, I finally reached the town square by the cathedral as a parade strolled through.

Photographers, journalists and amateur videographers faced oncoming processions, walking backwards and jockeying for the perfect shot as the lively party packed the sidewalks and spilled into the streets.

Bands marched the cobblestone avenue while relentless merchants selling umbrellas, ice cream and beverages worked the sweaty crowds.

A young mother tried to convince her costumed toddler to let a photographer snap her picture. The girl’s brown ringlets shook off her red, sequined hat and she screamed, covering her crystal-blue eyes each time he came close.

Decorated floats full of mini Josephs, Marys and angels threw candy and caught cheers.

Troupes danced around Maypoles and teens clad in Caribbean clothes and fake dreadlocks jived down the street as a drum line kept time and roused up the dancing audience.

Every family knew someone in the parade. Every family held a part in this.

Started 40 years ago, El Pase del Niño Viajero is one of the largest Christmas pageant parades in South America. Held in Ecuador’s cultural capital Cuenca, it represents the Biblical journey of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child following King Herod’s edict to kill all male infants.

An infusion of Catholic tradition, cultural dances and the added flavor of each new generation’s participants, the parade epitomized two bits of a deep-rooted equation permeating the Ecuadorian culture I had finally come to love and understand: A rich, vibrant energy — a passion for life — expressed in every Latin rhythm that made me want to dance, and a strong background of family and religious tradition.

Christmas in Quito and Cuenca was a celebration of family, of life, of what they had — not necessarily a pursuit of what they didn’t. In this land of extremes, it was the happy medium.