Latin Americans in Utah reconnect with their roots for Christmas dinner

What’s on the menu of Venezuelan, Mexican, Colombian and Brazilian families who now call the Beehive State home.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patricia Quiñonez and Fabian Rapalino with the Venezuelan food they'll be having this holiday season, at Arempa's in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. On the plate, hallaca (wrapped meat and dough), pernil (slow-roasted pork), cachito (bread and ham), and a potato chicken salad.

Christmas Eve at the Rapalino-Quiñonez home in West Valley City always brings to mind — and the senses — memories of Maracaibo, the family’s hometown in western Venezuela.

The house is impregnated with a smell of the mix of boiled cornmeal, olive and raisins. In the background, there’s the sound of loud carols and gaitas, a traditional kind of Christmas music which sometimes contains protest lyrics.

“Our traditional food represents much more than gathering at the table,” Patricia Quiñonez said. “It’s a way for us to go back home.”

The family members immigrated to Utah in 2017 and since then, they swapped the hot weather that rules their South American city yearlong for a snow-covered wintry landscape. As new Utahns, they also have adapted their Venezuelan traditions to those of their current home.

In Maracaibo, residents start their holiday season in November. The festivities follow the Feria de la Chinita, a religious feast celebrated all over the city to commemorate the miracle of the Chiquinquirá Virgin.

The main Christmas dish is the hallaca, boiled cornmeal wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with a beef, pork, chicken or veggie stew that includes olives, raisins, capers and chickpeas. Think of a tamale from another region.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Venezuelan food that Patricia Quiñonez and Fabian Rapalino will be having this holiday season, at Arempa's in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. On the plate, hallaca (wrapped meat and dough), pernil (slow-roasted pork), cachito (bread and ham), and a potato chicken salad.

Members of the Rapalino-Quiñonez household prepare their hallacas well in advance and freeze them until Christmas Eve. They then have to worry only about cooking their side dishes, which include bread filled with ham, raisins and olives and a potato chicken salad.

Venezuelans also share a tradition with other countries that border the Caribbean Sea: slow roasting a marinated pork leg or shoulder to share on Christmas.

For Venezuelans in Utah, being able to continue the tradition of gathering family to prepare these dishes is especially important. It allows them to stay true to their roots when visiting home is almost impossible amid political turmoil.

“Some of us can’t go back home because of the situation that the country is going through,” Quiñonez said, “so taking some bread of ham and hallacas to our table is always special.”

When the weather allows, family members build on new traditions in their new home by seeking out the best hills to go sledding and pick up a Christmas tree.

“Being surrounded by cold and snow was overwhelming at first,” Quiñonez said, “but now we’ve learned to love it.”

A Mexican-Colombian Christmas

When Jacqueline Robledo married her husband, John, 20 years ago, her festivities changed. She was used to a traditional Mexican Christmas, full of tamales, green chili peppers stuffed with cheese or minced meat and ponche (a fruit beverage).

Now, her family has incorporated John’s Colombian ways.

“We try to mix up the cultures because we are from two very different regions,” Robledo said. “I’m Mexican, and we cook dishes that are very typical to my state, Oaxaca [in Mexico]. We really love to cook together as a family.”

Now, blending Colombian Christmas’ favorites to what she grew up eating has become a holiday tradition. Family members have buñuelos (cassava flour and cornstarch cheese fritters), lechona (a roasted pig stuffed with rice) and, for dessert, natilla (a sweet custard).

Family members also gather every Dec. 24 at their Sandy home to re-create the biblical passage of the Nativity scene, a play they call “pastorela,” in which the family acts, sings and dances.

For Mexicans, the “biggest celebration is on Dec. 24,” she said. “We dress up, organize a party and give gifts.”

Late night, Brazilian-style

For Lucas Guerreiro’s family, who is from Brazil, the main Christmas event also happens Dec. 24.

During the three years Guerreiro has been living in Provo, he has had a combination of a traditional American Christmas and other gatherings with Latino Latter-day Saints.

This year, though, his parents are in town for the holidays, and they plan to celebrate a Brazilian Christmas. The only difference: the weather.

“We’re going to enjoy for the first time a white Christmas,” Guerreiro said. “It’s really exciting for us.”

In Sao Paulo, where they hail from, December is summertime. People go to the beach and down ice cream during the holidays.

This year, family members will replicate the party they organize in Brazil. It usually starts with dinner at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

They make a potluck of dishes with influences from Europe.

“We are Latinos but a different kind of Latinos,” he explained. “We have Portuguese, Italian, German and French influences. Because of that, the food is a little different than in other parts of South America.”

Some of the most common dishes at the Guerreiro table are the bacalhau (salted cod), fruit or chocolate panettone, and rice with raisins and turkey.

At midnight, kids find their gifts under the tree, and the party ends around 3 a.m. — after a lot of talking and family games.

By Christmas Day, they usually need to recover from that party.

“It’s pretty chill. People stay at home,” he said. “We see our immediate family, maybe, or sleep in.”

They partake of Rabanadas, a Portuguese French toast, which often includes sweetened condensed milk and cinnamon sugar.

Guerreiro is excited to have a piece of home these holidays.

“It’s a little hard when you don’t have your family around Christmastime,” he said. “That’s why it’s going to be better this year.”