They huddled for warmth at the corner of Second Avenue and Fayette Street, the nearly 100 people who gathered with a guitar and maracas and congas to sing the Puerto Rican Christmas song, “A La Zarandela” while another group performed traditional Venezuelan songs.
Then they set out, marching from block to block through Conshohocken, playing songs of the season.
It was a new sight for the Montgomery County community: a parranda, a holiday tradition in many Latin American countries, and the first of many that people like Jackie Rocco hope to see.
Rocco, who lives in the borough and serves on Pennsylvania’s Commission on Latino Affairs, helped organize this first parranda, which ended with a live Nativity scene in front of Conshohocken United Methodist Church and a performance by the Puerto Rican bomba and plena music group Los Bomberos De La Calle, from North Philadelphia.
The parranda tradition dates back over 100 years in the rural parts of Puerto Rico. But the infectious camaraderie of the celebration spreads throughout Latin America.
“It is something that our native countries have created to celebrate, of course, not only the Christmas holiday but also to share stories of their life,” Rocco said.
‘It’s about making the best of it’
In Latin America, the parranda is a little more extreme than Saturday’s party was.
Around the holiday season, a small group of people shows up at a friend or neighbor’s house late at night, singing and playing music — it could be as late as 3 a.m. when people are sleeping. The lucky hosts have to open their home to the group and make food and continue to spread the musical cheer. This continues throughout the night, with the celebration hopping from house to house.
“During Christmas, because so many people were poor, they weren’t better off like their leaders. They created their own version of the story of Christmas,” Rocco said. “They would take little pots and pans and make noise for instruments and create their own songs at the moment on the spot.”
And at the end, the much larger group decides on a place to stop. (In Saturday’s case, it was the community center at the Methodist church.) People play dominos, drink coquitos, dance the night away, and enjoy their time with friends and family.
“It’s about making the best of it, regardless of what we have,” Rocco said.
As part of her role with the state commission, Rocco has been working to make Montgomery County a more inclusive place for its growing Latinx community. The county is home to more than 40,000 Hispanic or Latinx residents.
In June, she and other organizers brought a Mexican mariachi band and a Puerto Rican folklore group to the Conshohocken Arts Festival. They also hosted a Hispanic day of celebration at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, where they displayed artifacts from several Latin American countries and handed out information regarding the 2020 Census.
Hosting a parranda was another item to check off her bucket list for showing Montgomery County that the Latinx community is strong in the region.
“[For me,] being a resident of Montgomery County, specifically Conshohocken, for 18 years and not feeling a part of the community … it’s what I found to be really interesting, that other people have felt that living in Montgomery County,” Rocco said. “So I think this is a good segue to feeling a part of their community.”
‘It brings it all back’
Rocco was born in Puerto Rico, and her father is from the Dominican Republic. She moved to Philadelphia as a toddler and didn’t go back to the island until she was 17. After that, she felt a stronger connection with her roots and tried to return as often as she could.
When she announced plans for a parranda in Conshohocken, Rocco said, the Eventbrite page “blew up.” The 100 registration slots were sold out within 24 hours. She thinks that’s because it’s was filling a cultural need that typically can only be met in nearby Philly.
For Harrisburg resident Pedro Antonetty, spending time at a parranda while seeing his Philadelphia-area family for the holidays was one of the best gifts.
Antonetty moved from Salinas, Puerto Rico, to Philly in 1979, when he was a child. Puerto Rican music was a big part of his childhood.
“Music has honestly saved my life because it has kept me out of trouble; it’s kept our family together,” Antonetty said. “If nothing else, the music was always the thing that allowed us to really come together.”
During the parranda performance along Fayette Street, Antonetty played the congas. He said he only started playing an instrument a few years ago. He brought his whole family Saturday night.
Luis Gonzalez, who came to the parranda from Northeast Philadelphia, brought 12 members of his family.
Gonzalez was also born in Puerto Rico and moved to Philadelphia when he was 14. Over the past 20 years, he’s tried to visit every year but wasn’t able to get there in 2019. The Conshohocken parranda was a great way to connect with the island.
It also brings back the memories of surprise when people suddenly show up at your home ready to party.
“They come in the middle of the night, and you feel like you’re getting robbed because you didn’t expect this many people and now you have to cook, and entertain,” Gonzalez said. “It brings back those magical moments that you experience while waiting for Santa Claus, the Nativity, the Three Wise Men, the smells of our country. It brings it all back. It’s touching.”
Rocco said she plans to try and make the Conshohocken parranda a yearly tradition. And she hopes that other local municipalities take note too.
“There are so many of us here, so it’s important,” Rocco said. “As a country, we’re transitioning into what the new America will look like, but it’s important for us to be aware about what’s happening so that we can transition beautifully and see how that’s going to look like for all of us.
“After so many years of being second-class citizens, we are now first-class citizens.”