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Mantecans remember old country traditions
Elda Paneda, center, husband Sonny and friend Loida Garcia greet the New Year with smiles. The Panedas of Lathrop, who own a business in Manteca, have plenty of fun memories celebrating New Years in the Philippines. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Juan Rivera’s eyes twinkle when he talks about celebrating New Year as a child growing up in Puerto Rico.

“We killed a pig every New Year and made black sausage,” said the longtime Mantecan, grinning from ear to ear at the fond memories.

He remembered the other delicacies that they cooked in his native Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, on New Year’s Day from the pig that they slaughtered for the days-long celebrations. They took “the liver, the heart, the stomach” and other organs “from inside the pig” and made a “special food” for the occasion.

“We cooked it with onions, garlic and other spices” and feasted on the food during the days of New Year revelry, he said.

His words turned into amused chuckles when he remembered the other longstanding traditions that always accompanied the feasts. For the first two to three days of the New Year, “sometimes five to six days, people went and serenaded all the different houses” in the neighborhood, recalled the retired power plant employee in the Bay Area who came to America as a 19-year-old. he pickedpotatoes in Idaho for 15 years before moving to the West Coast. He and wife Ana moved to Manteca in the mid-1980s.

Jumping for joy literally on NewYear’s day in the Philippines

For Sonny Paneda, New Year celebrations meant food, fun and family get-togethers in his native Philippines.

“Almost every night up to New Year’s Day, we had parties and get-togethers with friends and family,” said Paneda who, with wife Elda, own a business in Manteca.

The get-togethers were not just about food either. It also meant singing Christmas songs.

In the Philippines, he said, “we go caroling before Christmas up to the New Year.”

Along with the caroling were the noisemakers – primarily the small triangular firecrackers or “rebentador” in his native dialect – that young boys like him enjoyed playing to the annoyance of their parents who considered those celebratory acts “dangerous,” with good reason.

“One time, I lost my eyebrow,” recalled Paneda, tracing his left eyebrow with an index finger. It happened when he got too close to an exploding firecracker. Fortunately for him, the singe did not leave a permanent damage to his face.

“We got into a lot of trouble” playing with the firecrackers, he said, laughing at the memory.

If his parents frowned upon his playing with the exploding powder, Paneda still had another way to create more noise and scare the Old Year away. This one was made of bamboo that he simply called “canyon.” His cousin, who made it for him, would cut a piece of bamboo about 9 to 12 feet long with the inside all hollowed out. It was built in such a way that the application of kerosene would create a loud “boom” sound like that of a cannon; hence, the name “kanyon,” Paneda explained. He said he used to ask an older cousin to make the bamboo noisemaker for him.

Going to church on New Year’s Eve goes hand in hand with the celebratory anticipation of the New Year for Filipinos, added Paneda. After the Mass, and the church bells started to peal to mark the stroke of midnight, “we jumped – so that we’ll grow tall – at least, that’s what the old folks said,” he explained, smiling.

You have to jump while the church bells were ringing at midnight, and while “all the firecrackers were (going off) all over the place,” he said.

Their American-born children don’t observe any of these old-country traditions, though.

“Nah, they’re too Americanized,” Paneda said smiling and shaking his head.

Young hen delicacy, oranges bring good luck for Chinese New Year

New Year’s celebration for Canton, China-native Carol Szeto is also synonymous with food and plenty of feasting.

“We make different kinds of food” to celebrate the New Year, said the longtime Manteca business owner.

One dish, in particular, involves preparing a “young hen cooked with the head and feet.” Along with the steamed young hen is roasted pork and other dishes.

Growing up, Szeto’s family made all these food for their Chinese New Year celebration which they observe in the middle of January, she said.

All these special food represent good luck, wealth, prosperity and happiness in the coming New Year, Szeto explained. Along with these gastronomical feasts are a variety of fruits and flowers that similarly deliver the same positive outlook for the coming year. In particular, said Szeto, are the tangerines and Mandarin oranges, “because in Chinese they mean good luck.” The Chinese grapefruit, as big as a pomelo but with a much thicker rind, also signifies good luck and prosperity, added Szeto who has a pomelo on display at her Forum Restaurant in Manteca.

Flowers share the same New Year significance as the fruits. In Hong Kong, after the people have feasted on all the food, they all go to a place where flower plants are sold.

“When the flowers bloom, it means happiness and wealth,” Szeto explained.

That is still observed here in the United States. “Over here in San Francisco, they celebrate (the Chinese New Year). They’re kind of like a street fair,” Szeto said.

Like Paneda, immigrants like Szeto’s family who have moved to the United States from the old country, do not celebrate the New Year with the same complexity as they did growing up, Szeto said. A lot of people have “simplified” their celebrations because of their preoccupations with family and jobs here in America, she said.