From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

The Christmas Train

In 1963, I was a ten-year-old girl living with my parents and four-year-old brother in Madrid, Spain. We were poor Cuban refugees who had left our country just a few months before.

Our stay in Spain would be brief as we waited for our U.S. residency to be approved. My maternal grandfather and uncle had sacrificed their little savings—they were recently arrived refugees to New York—to send us a meager monthly stipend for our humble lodgings. Our only meals came from a soup kitchen where we lined up in the late morning along with dozens of other Cubans.

That particular winter was bitterly cold in Madrid. Our hospice room was freezing during the day, so we would spend our time walking Madrid’s magnificent boulevards. We marveled at the architecture and the large plazas and the snow! We missed our homeland, but the promise of a fresh beginning beckoned, and la madre patria was a magnificent start for a new life.

The Christmas season arrived. Overnight, Madrid lit up. Every corner was awash in sparkling holiday lights, los madrileños were busy bustling about buying gifts and looking forward to la noche buena, and el día de los reyes.

Every storefront was a winter wonderland full of dolls, trolleys and every imaginable toy. The storefront at the Corte Inglés department store had a fabulous Christmas village full of enchanting chalets, snow-covered peaks and a shiny red train that circled the town, hooting its horn at every turn.

My younger brother, Santiago, was born during the first year of the Cuban Revolution, and he had never seen such a wondrous toy. Toys were considered a luxury then and were very hard to obtain.

My brother fell in love with that train. Every day he would push his nose against the glass in the window and ask: “Do you think los reyes magos will bring me that train? Do you? Do you?” My parents’ pain was apparent as they looked at their son’s hopeful face. They knew that no matter how hard their son wished for that train, his wish would not be granted.

Looking at my parents, I just wished Santiago would stop asking. But I also didn’t want to destroy the innocence of a hopeful four-year-old. So the next time Santiago ran up to the storefront window and asked the question, I pulled him aside.

“Santiago, you know that we left our country and we are in a strange land,” I said. “The three wise men are pretty smart, but since we are only here in Madrid for a little while, they probably don’t have our address. I don’t think we’ll be getting any toys this year.”

I also told him that once we were settled in the United States, the three wise men would find us once again. To my utter surprise, he accepted my explanation without question, and our excursions up and down the main boulevard continued without any major interruptions.

A year later, we were settled in Union City, New Jersey, the town we had moved to upon entry into the United States. Both my parents—a teacher and an engineer— were working at factory jobs. Santiago and I were adapting to a new school and quickly learning English.

That Christmas was modest, but my parents bought a silver-colored Christmas tree, and we put tiny, sparkling lights on it. They also bought the traditional pork and turrones for the Noche Buena meal.

On Christmas day, I woke up early, and to my surprise and delight found several presents underneath the tree with my name on them. But even better than that was watching my brother’s face as he opened a square box with a large red bow and his name on it.

Inside was a shiny, brand-new train! The locomotive and caboose resembled the one that had so enthralled my brother a year before. Santiago’s face lit up like the Christmas tree. He looked at my parents and me, and his eyes shined with happiness and surprise.

“Babby, you were right!” my brother told me eagerly. “The three wise men found our address, and they gave it to Santa Claus!”

Barbara Gutiérrez

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