2002 Undergraduate Nonfiction Winner
No Santa Claus in Kansas
While I look at that picture of me on Christmas Eve fourteen years ago, I feel cold all over again. Looking through photo albums can make you feel, smell, and even taste memories. I was seven years old and not even trying to smile in the picture. It looks like I have a twitch on a corner of my lip, probably because the dress I was wearing was bright blue and white and very ugly. Perhaps what made it much more ugly to me was that it was Christmas Eve and there were five inches of snow on the ground. The Kansas winter of 1987 did not kindly welcome a family of three Central Americans escaping a civil war in El Salvador.
When we left El Salvador in the summer of 1985, I did not fully understand why we had to move so suddenly, why we had to leave everything that was familiar to us. I knew about the war, I remembered how on occasions helicopters would fly over our home and soldiers would sometimes gather on the corners of our street. Sometimes I would be afraid, but only because others spoke of what had happened the week before in some other neighborhood. It was often the custom of guerrillas to invade nice neighborhoods and take refuge in civilian homes. At that time, there was no violence around our neighborhood, but my parents did not want to wait for the violence to reach us, so they decided that we would leave the country.
Moving to the United States was very hard for my parents, and taking jobs as janitors was something they had never expected to go to college for. In El Salvador, my dad was a senior accountant at Toshiba, and my mother was an accountant for a large company too. The language barrier did not allow my parents to make very much money in the first few years that we were in the United States. So that very cold Christmas of 1987, there were no Christmas presents under our funny little plastic tree that had one string of lights.
In El Salvador, Christmas Eve is the day when you wear your best dress. Children spend all day prancing up and down their neighborhood so that their little friends can see their new outfits. But that particular Christmas Eve in Kansas would not allow it. I wasnít planning on prancing up and down my neighborhood; there wasnít even a child or anyone in sight. The temperature was below freezing and dreaming of a White Christmas had turned into a nightmare.
I was actually dreaming of a warm Christmas, where the sun did not drench, but lightly scattered in all the right places. A warm Christmas where there were children singing Jingle Bells in Spanish and then more kids at the red-tapered fireworks stand. In El Salvador you see screaming children waving their money (colones and not dollars), yelling out what fireworks they wanted. Every Christmas season oneís hearing is impaired in El Salvador. The salsa music from every house is really a contest to see who can be the loudest and the most festive. Like the speed limit in El Salvador, it seems that the regulations on fireworks are made to be ignored. The fireworks are so large and so loud, that you are sure to wake someone from their siesta a mile away.
Instead, I was in Wichita, Kansas, where it was quiet and cold. The snow piled up silently on our doorsteps. Snow was no longer as fascinating as it once had been to me. I wanted to be able to go outside and see an ocean and a palm tree. I wanted to see my grandma, play with my neighbor, speak in Spanish, and not have to strain my tongue to hide an accent. At school I had learned that, here, kids did not open their presents on the midnight of Christmas Eve. Nor did they have their family Christmas Dinner at that time. How could a kid wait all night to open presents in the morning?
In El Salvador, the Santa Claus fantasy is strictly taught to children, and parents attempt to keep that belief for as long as possible. That snowy night, I was sure that Santa Claus had just skipped our town because it was much too cold. My parents had to tell me that Santa Claus was not real and that neither he nor they could bring me presents. At first I didnít want to believe it; I was tired of everything changing and being so different.
When I think about that Christmas Eve now, I believe that it helped me grow up in many ways. I had to finally face all the changes in my life; I had been trying to live El Salvador in Kansas. But at seven, all I could see was the snow, lots of snow and no Santa Claus, no loud fireworks, and no salsa music.
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Last updated April 24, 2003