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Parranda! In Puerto Rico, young people keep a Christmas musical tradition alive

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In Puerto Rico, a beloved holiday tradition is the parranda. During the Christmas season, a group of your friends and family can show up at your front door at any time for an impromptu musical party. Though it's an old tradition, it's been receding. But in one mountain town, young people are keeping it alive. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The bright pink cultural center in the small town of Morovis in Puerto Rico's Central Mountains has for years been teaching children and adults the instrument often most closely associated with Puerto Rico's Christmas...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: ...The folk guitar known as the cuatro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: Eleven-year-old Denzel Perez Salgado is getting in a little last-minute practice...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: ...Because today is the course's culmination.

DENZEL PEREZ SALGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "And we're going to go do a neighborhood parranda," Perez says. In a parranda, a crowd armed with musical instruments shows up unannounced at the doorstep of friends or family. It's not caroling - more like a party. Joe Torres is a cuatro teacher here.

JOE TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "When you get a parranda, you just get happy," he says, "and if it's kids playing, even happier." The key, his co-teacher Jose Rivera Marrero says, is the element of surprise.

JOSE RIVERA MARRERO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The parranda has been in decline in Puerto Rico. One reason is it's a rural tradition, but many towns have lost their young people to the island's economic crisis. Left behind are older residents, who often struggle with loneliness. That, Torres says, is the reason for today's parranda - to surprise three older people who've been having a hard time.

TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "It's a lovely thing," he says, "because even for just a little while, they can forget their pain and their day-to-day problems."

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN DOOR THUDDING)

FLORIDO: The musicians load up into a van. Their parents follow in a line of cars to one of Morovis' outer neighborhoods.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: They tune up their cuatros, walk up to the first house.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Parranda.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Greeting, greeting," they sing. "I'm here to greet you."

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: A frail older woman emerges from her front door, her lower lip quivering with emotion. Her name is Sonia Claudia, and she's a retired nurse who's been battling cancer and other diseases.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: I asked if she's surprised.

(Speaking Spanish).

SONIA CLAUDIA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Of course," she says. "My heart is pounding. My stomach is jumping. My legs are quivering. It's beautiful. It's a pleasure, and I feel truly like I have good health."

CLAUDIA: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: Her daughter brings out a tray of snacks before the musicians head up the hill to their next house.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: This house belongs to Pucha Rivera. She says Christmas has been sad since the recent death of her oldest son.

PUCHA RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But she thanks the musicians for their beautiful gift and says she wishes more children would learn to play. Sixteen-year-old Jeremy Santos Rivera says he loves putting a smile on people's faces.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Yes, this town has lost a lot of young people, but not all of them. Many of those still here, he says...

JEREMY SANTOS RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: ...Are keeping Puerto Rico's tradition alive.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Adrian Florido, NPR News, Morovis, Puerto Rico.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.