IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Latino members of Congress skip big Nochebuena gatherings, urge Americans to do the same

Sen. Bob Menendez won't be eating lechón with extended relatives, and Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Chuy García won't be assembling tamales with a crowd to keep their families safe from Covid-19.
Christmas decorations in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Dec. 15.Kena Betancur / AFP - Getty Images

Sen. Bob Menendez says his Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, will be dramatically different this year because of the surge in Covid-19 cases.

"In a 'normal' year, we gather at my sister Caridad's home in Union City," said Menendez, D-N.J. "It's an extended family affair with my wife, kids, grandchildren and nephews. We always have a big Cuban feast with all of our favorites."

Those include roasted pork, moros, or rice and black beans, fried plantains, avocado salad and chocolate bread pudding.

"It is always a special treat to spend time with family, enjoying good food, music and stories. We spend a lot of time retelling the old stories about how my parents left Cuba in search of the American Dream," he said.

IMAGE: Sen. Bob Menendez
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., center back, during a 2017 Christmas Eve celebration with his family.Courtesy Sen. Bob Menendez

But Covid-19 hospitalizations in New Jersey have risen in the past few days.

To keep themselves safe, Menendez and his wife will have a quiet Nochebuena at home and use Zoom and Skype to spend virtual time with the family. He is urging his constituents to do the same.

"While this is certainly not how I envisioned celebrating the holiday season, we'll do our best to make new memories. And who knows? Maybe new traditions will be born from all this," he said.

As Covid-19 case numbers surge and the virus continues to disproportionately affect Latinos, health officials and Hispanic elected officials are urging Americans to skip their traditional holiday gatherings with extended families and keep the celebrations to their own households. Over 17 million cases have been confirmed in the U.S. The country has counted more than 200,000 cases a day for most of December, and more than 300,000 people have died.

Before Thanksgiving, Americans were constantly warned that travel and gatherings would bring a surge in case numbers. Weeks later, some regions appear to have escaped dramatic rises in infections, while other areas are dealing with spikes that may have been fueled by gatherings during Thanksgiving.

Health authorities in Austin-Travis County, Texas, have reported a 45 percent increase in case numbers since the beginning of December.

Tamales, church and family will be different this year

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, whose district covers much of eastern Houston, said Christmas has always been about family, church and traditional Mexican tamales.

"It begins with Christmas Eve, when we gather for fresh tamales, guacamole and a good hot sauce," Garcia said. "Preparing and sharing food together as a family has always been a major part of our celebration."

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, left, with one of the family's grandchildren and her late sister.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, left, with one of the family's grandchildren and her late sister.Courtesy Rep. Sylvia Garcia

Garcia said she comes from a small, tight-knit farming community, where every year her family attended Mass and then went to the family cemetery to visit her mother, her father and other relatives who had passed away.

But the family won't be taking part in those activities this year.

"This year is especially hard, since it will be the first Christmas without my sister, who we lost in April of this year. We will miss her and will carry her memory in our hearts," Garcia said.

Illinois registered over 6,000 Covid-19 cases Tuesday. It's a significant decrease after the state was reporting over 15,000 cases in mid-November, followed by stricter measures by the governor.

Rep. Chuy García, D-Ill., said that to continue reducing the numbers, he won't be making tamales with his family this Christmas Eve, as he has been doing since he was little.

IMAGE: Rep. Chuy Garcia
Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., makes tamales for a Christmas Eve celebration in 2019.Courtesy Rep. Chuy Garcia

He said making tamales is "an all-day project that allows us to connect as a family while we listen to salsa, norteña or mariachi music."

It's not a simple task. "It's all hands on deck," he said.

García's son buys the masa, or corn dough, early in the morning, his wife cooks the meat, and then they make an assembly line to wrap the tamales in the corn husks.

"But this year we won't be able to see our children and our grandchildren, so it doesn't make sense to make dozens of tamales if the family isn't here," he said.

He said the pandemic has helped them appreciate one another more.

"We will have a small dinner, and we will see each other on a Zoom call until we can meet in person again, when the vaccine makes it possible," he said.

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.