Each holiday season, US-based studios churn out films that tie yuletide festivities to dysfunctional family reunions. In these movies, gathering from far and wide for an obligatory return home is met with awkwardness, discontent, and ultimately self-discovery. From movies like Four Christmases and The Family Stone, to Home for the Holidays, a common theme is characters who plot to get in and out quickly to reduce the amount of time that must actually be spent with their family members.
In stark contrast to this motif, is Alfredo de Villa’s 2008 film Nothing Like the Holidays. Set in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, it centers a close knit Puerto Rican family, which reunites for Christmas after several years apart. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, this Latino-led movie highlights family dynamics that aren’t ordinarily shown in holiday-themed productions.
John Leguizamo plays the older son, Mauricio, and Debra Messing plays his high-powered wife Sarah. Both are visiting from out of town, as well as middle child, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), a veteran, and younger daughter, Roxanna, (Vanessa Ferlito), an aspiring actress. Rounding out the cast is the know-it-all cousin (Luis Guzman), and long-time family friend (Jay Hernandez). Governing the clan is matriarch Anna (Elizabeth Peña) and patriarch Eduardo Rodriguez (Alfred Molina).
As the Rodriguez family sits down for their first meal together, yelling and shouting immediately commences. But unlike most Anglo holiday films, this is not about holiday misgivings or personal conflicts. Messing’s character turns to her husband with a concerned look to ask, “Why is everybody fighting?” to which Leguizamo’s character replies, “They’re not fighting. They’re conversating.”
And with this, audiences get an honest glimpse of the connectedness many U.S. Latino families cherish during the holiday season. Stay in a hotel? Of course not. Speak with an attitude to mami and papi? You better check yourself. Complain about spending time with your family? Not even an option.
Yes, there are conflicts that stir up underlying tensions, however, they are mostly due to external factors that penetrate the strong family bond and not the other way around. Eduardo is keeping a cancer diagnosis a secret from the family, Jesse is struggling to find a sense of purpose outside of his family, Mauricio strongly wants a marriage that mirrors his parents’, and younger daughter Roxanna is looking for professional validation. The one true north for each character is family – and that’s what makes this holiday film so special and unique.
A common trope of Anglo holiday movies feeds audiences with the notion that family time should be looked upon with dread and anxiety. In fact, the tagline for 1995’s Home for the Holidays is, “This holiday season, 84 million Americans will gather together, and wonder why.” They take it as a given that there should be an inevitable awkwardness about spending time with your family with spiceless dinners, dry talk, and matching pajamas on Christmas day. That’s simply not the case in Nothing Like the Holidays. There is a genuine love and admiration every family member has for each other and it’s amplified over shared traditions such as Midnight Mass, pernil asado, and parandas.
With the lack of U.S. Latino holiday films, it’s difficult to find memories of our own traditions in the mainstream canon. That’s why Nothing Like Home is a refreshing go-to movie that is a reminder that family, flaws and all, is what makes the holiday season worth celebrating. And when we say goodbye to our families this holiday season, we know that we’ll mostly likely see them again the next weekend at abuelas house for Sunday dinner.