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My Most Memorable Christmas Was The One I Spent In A Women’s Shelter As A Kid

Christmas can be an absolutely wonderful time of year for many reasons but it can also be a really expensive time of year for many of us. Now that I am an adult and have my own family to take care of (furry kids included), I am starting to realize just how much money my parents must have spent on all of the decorations, excessive food, and toys I got as a kid. I’m very grateful for all of it but, if I were honest, the best Christmas of my life was the one when we had the least amount of money.

When I was 9 years old, I had the best Christmas of my entire life — all while living at a women’s shelter with my mom and younger brother.

The year before, I spent Christmas at Disney World with my entire family: dad, mom and baby brother. Disney World is just as beautiful around the holidays as you can imagine. There were twinkly lights everywhere, Christmas trees all around even though there’s no actual snow in Florida and my favorite cartoon characters were walking around everywhere, smiling, posing for photos and signing my little signature notebook. It was a happy time and yet it wasn’t the fondest holiday memory of my childhood.

At the time, we had only been in the United States of America for eight months. My parents had immigrated our family to the U.S. and my dad had worked hard at his door-to-door salesman job in those first difficult months in America. He must have done well since we were all rewarded with the trip to Disney. But despite the wonder and splendor of the supposed happiest place on Earth, my first Christmas in America was still scary and confusing.

I didn’t have any friends, I was barely getting by in school and I noticed my parents fighting a lot around the holidays.

Despite the trip to Disney, we didn’t have a lot of money. Soon enough, just over a year after we came to the U.S., my parents separated. My mom couldn’t support us on her own, though, so we moved into a women’s shelter. I was nine years old and more frightened than ever.

“Why did my parents bring us here if we were just going to stop being a family?” I remember thinking.

Our time at the women’s shelter was very strange to me at first. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t seeing my dad come home from work every day. Instead, I had to share a small room with a couple of twin beds — all for the three of us. It was terrifying and I didn’t know anything that was going on. My mom wouldn’t talk to us about what had really happened between her and my dad. All I knew is that we didn’t have a choice and had to live there for now.

And then, Christmas came… and the women’s shelter became magical.

It might sound strange to describe the scariest time in my life as also the most magical, but that’s what happened. My family didn’t have any money to provide us with a nice Christmas that year but, somehow, the great people that worked at that Miami women’s shelter and the people that supported the shelter made it into the actual happiest place on Earth that Christmas.

Although it could have easily been the hardest Christmas of my life, it ended up being the best.

I remember walking through the halls of that women’s shelter during the month of December and seeing smiling faces and decorations everywhere. I remember how organization after organization came and donated toys to the shelter — many of which I ended up with. In fact, by the end of December, I had so many new toys that I could cover half of my bed with all of them. As a nine-year-old, it felt like the luckiest Christmas of my life.

What started out as a sad Christmas without my dad became a happy Christmas with lots of toys.

But it didn’t turn into the happiest Christmas of my life because of all the toys. Although, yes, I’ll admit that to my nine-year-old self at the time, all of the toys seemed like heaven. What I really learned that Christmas was that life can be difficult and scary but that you can also find a lot of joy in it, especially around Christmas.

There’s something about this time of year that truly does make people act a little more generously towards their fellow human beings. Sometimes that means companies opening up their hearts and donating money or toys or clothes to women and children in need. Other times it means fellow individual human beings donating their time and money to help others.

That’s why, ever since I became an adult, I’ve tried to give back to others around this time of year just as I had received many kindnesses as a kid this time of year. Throughout the years, I’ve made sure to donate to various women’s rights and Latinx organizations who are doing good for others. Some years I even took the time to volunteer, often at a women’s shelter wrapping donated gifts for little girls and boys just like I was.

But this year, with memories of my happiest Christmas fresh in my mind, I decided to donate toys to my local women’s shelter.

It seems strange and silly now to admit that my happiest Christmas of my entire childhood was spent in a women’s shelter but it’s true. The year after, my parents got back together and are still together today. In fact, they just celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary and are happier than ever. Yet still, my happiest Christmas wasn’t spent in our home, gathered around the tree on Noche Buena, wildly opening presents with my little brother. Instead, my happiest Christmas came when I realized that people have an incredible capacity for caring.

The world today makes me forget about those moments sometimes. There’s so much going on these days that it’s easy to forget that but remembering hope and light in the world is what the holidays are ultimately all about. And, you know, helping a little girl get her dream Christmas present and restore her hope in fellow human beings.


Read: My Son Never Met My Abuela, But This Recipe Keeps Her Memory Alive

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Día De Los Reyes Was The First Time I Allowed My S.O. To Experience My Culture

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Día De Los Reyes Was The First Time I Allowed My S.O. To Experience My Culture

For many who regularly take part in the holiday season, Christmas traditions are strongly tied to religious beliefs and practices. The ways in which the customs around the holiday season are carried out often deeply rooted in cultural rituals and they often vary from family to family. For my Puerto Rican family, the holiday season is drawn out well past the first of January when radio stations reel back on the jingles and Mariah Carey classics. For us, the Twelve Days Of Christmas sales or songs we know of don’t relate to the days leading up to December 25, but rather the twelve days in between Christmas Day and January 6 The Epiphany, a biblical day that marks the final leg of the  Three Wise Men’s journey to deliver gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus Christ.

Día De Los Reyes has always been an especially important day for my family. The fact that “reyes” is my mother’s maiden name has only made the day a little sweeter.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

A more popular holiday back on the island, my abuela and abuelo Reyes brought their traditions to the mainland with them in the 1950s.

On the evening of January 5, each member of my family from grandfather to my youngest sobrino pull out cardboard shoe and clothing boxes (all marked with our names, drawn on and decorated over the years with crayons, markers, and glitter pens) to take part in a tradition that we hold dear in our hearts. After we’ve filled the boxes with snacks like carrots, lettuce, and sometimes grass for the Three Kings’ camels to munch on as they pass through our town we stick the boxes under our beds. Finally, just as we would with Santa Claus, we write the Three Kings–Los Reyes–a handwritten note wishing them safe travels as the journey to see the baby Jesus hoping that as they did with him on that first Epiphany, they’ll leave a small gift or token of some sort under our boxes.

Dia De Los Reyes functions similarly to Christmas Eve in my family. We all wake up and check under our boxes to see if we were good enough this year to receive any gifts. We’d go to mass together, where as kids we’d hope that maybe Los Reyes stayed in town with their camels long enough that day to be at the church community center to pose for photos. We would visit family and eat pernil and arroz con gandules, dishes reserved for celebrations and holidays.

As I got older I went to mass only sometimes and stopped looking to get my photos with Los Reyes.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

I never stopped checking my box for gifts though, or remembering each rey by the names older relatives taught me to write in my letters: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. As an adult I focused on new ways to celebrate “being a king,” as my family would say, and took on the role of expert coquito maker.

When I started dating and began wanting to bring boyfriends home for the holidays, part of my new role during the holiday season also unintentionally became one of both gatekeeper and teacher of my Puerto Rican culture. As a sophomore in college, I brought my then boyfriend home for December for the first time. In my household, Noche Buena, Christmas Day, New Years Day, New Year’s Eve, and Dia De Los Reyes were all days set aside for family, exclusively. I knew not to ask for exceptions, and in the past had willfully or grudgingly passed up holiday and New Years parties to honor the expectation of being en familia.

But in my twenties I badly started to yearn for my first New Years kiss and wanted, even more, to share part of my twelve days of Christmas with somebody who mattered to me.

My parents, on the other hand, were hesitant. Dia De Los Reyes was about Los Reyes, as in my family.

My boyfriend was someone they saw a few times a year and knew of only from phone calls, letters, texts, and video chats. Someone so unfamiliar certainly wasn’t considered family, and moreover someone who wasn’t Latino couldn’t possibly understand the sanctity of the day we’d honored so lovingly all our lives.

Most concerning of all, Dia De Los Reyes is also known among some circles as “the poor man’s Christmas,” my grandparents’ explanation being that back in the days of Jesus, being a king didn’t mean wealth like it means today. It meant that the giftschildren and observers receive in their boxes today are small, like a $10 gift card, socks, some mittens, or maybe candy. The last thing my family needed was for some guy they didn’t know to reach into an old shoebox of all things, pull out socks, and think we were cheap. With some convincing and a little grumbling, my family allowed me to write my boyfriend’s name on a box, fill it with lettuce and put it under my bed on January 5.

That night as I lay in bed, I did feel nervous knowing that I was bringing somebody into such a special part of my life that no one had ever seen before outside of my parents. Earlier in the day, I made sure to explain to him how seriously my family took our family only traditions, and how it wasn’t just about the religious holiday but the namesake that ties us to one another. I felt silly as I highlighted decorating beat-up boxes as one of my favorite traditions, something I hadn’t ever admitted out loud. Quiet and reserved, he listened to my stories but didn’t ask any questions.

In the morning, I still had my family only morning mass and our opening of gifts, but later that day my boyfriend was invited over for pasteles, coquito, and the checking of his first and only Three Kings Day box.

My parents observed with critical eyes as he went through the motions of our traditions, seeming charmed by the gifts of a hat and gloves left resting on top of torn up shreds of lettuce, proof that Los Reyes had come through our house. As he followed our lead I sat hoping that by participating in the events himself, he might better understand where my love for my culture comes from, or maybe even briefly feel the same sense of childhood joy I do on that day each year. Admittedly, it was an awkward day for everyone involved and not filled with all the magic I had hoped for. Nonetheless, I still felt proud of myself for being able to break down a barrier that had long existed between myself and not only romantic connections but a friend, too.

I wanted the opportunity to show those outside of my family the part of my identity that I hadn’t always made transparent in my daily life, even if that meant that they didn’t understand or wouldn’t “get it” at first.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

Even though the person who got to take the test run of my family only traditions and I aren’t together anymore, a few years ago he broke the mold for being able to bring others into a part of my life I was using to shutting so many close to me out of.n Maybe he did think that of us, our gifts, or the day we celebrate as cheap, but after the fact I, didn’t care. In the years that have followed, what has mattered most to me has been that I could start sharing Reyes, this name that laid down the foundation to who I am before I was ever born, and all the nuances that come with it with those I want to know me better.

This Dia De Los Reyes will be one of a few Reyes family festivities that my current boyfriend will be participating in, and another year where my family pulls out his box and welcomes his extra cheer into our holidays. While he’s still learning about my roots, I’m still learning that I can take these moments and use them to bring myself closer to my culture and my loved ones.


Read: Twitter’s Latest Hashtag Fights Back Against The Normalization Of Death And Violence Against Migrant Youth

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The Hottest Financial Tips to Help You Jumpstart 2019

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The Hottest Financial Tips to Help You Jumpstart 2019

The start of a new year is exciting but can be stressful. This is the time of year people make impossible resolutions that become overwhelming before the end of January.

When it comes to personal finances, you can avoid the resolution trap by keeping it real. Instead of making big impossible promises to yourself, try making a number of small changes you can actually handle.

Wondering what makes me credible in this area? Well here goes: I’m debt free, have a great credit score (above 800), am self-employed, and get no help from my family. Yes, I’m married, but my husband and I merged accounts only recently. I agreed to do this because sending each other money for groceries, house bills, and the mortgage was becoming annoying! But, as God is my witness, I’ve always paid my proper portion. I am a firm believer in being as independent as possible, because, as my mom always said, “uno nunca sabe.”

Here’s what’s worked for me to stay financially healthy…

Prioritize paying off loans.

Instagram @peachtreedebtrelief

One thing I’ll say repeatedly is that you must make it your number one priority to pay off every loan you have. If you’re paying just the minimum, you’ll never get out from under that debt. Put as much as you can into each monthly payment. Even $10 extra per month makes a difference over time.

Use a balance transfer card.

Instagram @iin.lam

There’s a slew of cards that offer transfer balance deals at low or zero APR for the first year. I have taken advantage of these deals especially when there’s a big charge on my card. For example, during a recent move I had to buy lots of furniture and stuff for the new house, so once I was done with that big spending, I transferred the balance onto a zero-interest Citibank card. Now I have a whole year to pay off that amount with no interest rate. But don’t let zero-interest make you lazy. You have to pay it off, because if you don’t within the year, the interest rate will begin to accumulate, and then there’s no point. Citibank continues to offer me these no-APR deals every six months because they want to keep me as a customer, so now I know they are there just in case a financial burden comes up.

If you’re self-employed, put away 20 percent from each paycheck for taxes.

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I’ve been freelancing full-time for more than 2 years now, and each check I get includes the full amount, meaning I don’t get charged a tax. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay taxes on it. So, in order for me to pay taxes on each paycheck, I take out 20 percent of the amount and put it in another account. When it’s time to pay annual taxes, I have my money ready to go.

Make a habit of putting 10 percent of every paycheck into a separate savings account.

Instagram @southbayfinancialpartners

Saving money is difficult, especially if you need every cent of it. If you get into the habit of putting money away the moment you get paid, it will add up and you will be amazed at how quickly that happens. If 10 percent is too much for you, try getting there slowly by putting in at least 5 percent.

Get started on that 401(k).

Instagram @_ladyjavi

Do not plan on social security or that million-dollar business idea to keep you looking fly in your golden years.  Federal social security is slowly becoming nonexistent, and the likelihood of you inventing the next fidget spinner is looking slimmer and slimmer, which means you must start planning for retirement now, on your own terms. One financial institution that can help you make sense of retirement is Fidelity Investments. Honestly, without Fidelity, I never would have started not only a 401(k) tax-advantaged savings account, but I wouldn’t have a small stock portfolio I can occasionally check on.

Start separate savings account for that special thing.

Instagram @adebtfreelife

If you love to travel or buy expensive things that seem unattainable, start separate savings account for that special thing. This account is different from your real savings account because you can use this money for something you truly want. Your primary savings account should be for unexpected expenses like getting laid off, breaking your leg, facing an unexpected car repair, etc. But your secondary savings account is money you can actually use for that special thing. Each week put as much or as little as you can into the account. You’ll actually end up putting more once you see the amount increasing.

Don’t be afraid of having multiple accounts.

Instagram @merch_pay

Having multiple accounts is nothing new. In fact, it’s a thing of the past to just have one checking and one for savings. Most banks require that you have just $50 in the account at all times, which isn’t hard to manage. I have multiple accounts, and it helps to keep track of where my money is going. One account is for taxes, another for savings, and another for that special thing I really want.

Make sure you pay each card ASAP.

Instagram @jackiemckeeverspeaks

Be careful not to overspend. Charge the card for the amount you can pay off. If you’re spending more than you have, you will always get into trouble. If you’re spending a lot, and don’t have enough to pay it back, be sure to then use the transfer balance in order to not get killed by APR on those charges. It’s always safe to never have more than one transfer balance in a year.

Get Mint.

Instagram @mintapp

A helpful app that is useful for sorting out where your money is going is Mint. It tracks your monthly bills, gives you your latest credit score and assists with budgeting. We use so many apps all the time, so why not use one that is actually making your life better and less stressful?

Learn how to party when you don’t have money to go out.

Instagram @discover

There’s a misconception that if you’re living on a budget, you can’t have fun. That’s so untrue! On a recent night out, I asked the bartender how much a shot of tequila cost (about $8). But why buy a shot when you can get a whole bottle for $35? I’m not saying to get drunk in your kitchen, but it can be fun to host gatherings at home — and less expensive. Not only that but if people come over BYOB, it’s likely that you will keep all of the leftovers. So really, it’s a win-win.

Don’t show off on social media.

Instagram @citibank

If your life is trying to keep up with the Kardashians, it may be affecting your wallet. Do you really need every Kylie Lip Kit? Must you truly have that beach front AirBnB just so you can blow up your Instagram? I’m not saying it’s not amazing to treat yourself to cool stuff or travel to the Bahamas during winter break. But, if your spending habits are putting you in debt just so your social media can be on point, is it really worth it? If you can do that splashy stuff and still have money to pay utilities, rent, and groceries, then by all means — enjoy.

Shop thrift.

Instagram @alexasunshine83

Save serious (and I mean serious) money by finding your look at a thrift store. Urban Outfitters, H&M, American Eagle, Forever 21 brands, they’re all at thrift—and often just months or a year after they were at retail.  If you can’t abide sifting through other people’s giveaway items, check out upscale resale shops and consignment stores. My husband and I have found family-heirloom-quality furniture at antique stores and estate sales. The last day of an estate sale, when they’re trying to clear everything out, can be a real score. I know this isn’t for everyone, so take it or leave it. But if you’re really trying to keep that budget in check while living well, this is not a bad strategy.

READ: She Struggled To Pay For College Because She Was Undocumented, So This Latina Created An App To Make The Process Easier For The Next Generation

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