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Asalto!

Picture this: It is 2 in the am, on a school night, a slow snake of cars with their hazards on is winding its way along the highway at 30 miles an hour. Maybe they are stopped by the side of the road, a blinking necklace thirty, forty, fifty strong. Cars overflowing with folks who started drinking coquito on the dot of five at the office. The high-rises hemming in the expressway are lit by the christmas lights bedecking the balconies, winking in the tropical night. This is bad news for some poor sod who is now peacefully sweating under the sheets in what passes for winter in the tropics.

The asalto (literally, assault), also referred to as a trulla or parranda is a xmas tradition in Puerto Rico four hundred years in the making. It probably started innocently enough. One can imagine a gentler time, when the quaint mountain towns were as isolated as the moons of Jupiter and an incestous neighborliness permeated the social dynamic. Electric light had not forced itself over the ridges of the mountains so darkness and surprise would have come early in the evening. Other than that and the transportation, we can jump forward to the twenty first century and pickup the story.

Modern asaltos are usually late at night. Groups of folks would have gathered and coalesced into a band of carolers acompanied by the low ukelele sound of the cuatro, a small guitar with four sympathetic strings, classical Spanish guitar and the rasp of the güiro, a hollow gourd with closely carved ridges scratched rhythmically with metal tines. The carols would be traditional Puerto Rican aguinaldos, old sounding songs in an ancient decima form, mostly on popular religious themes appropriate to the season. Though the core instrumentation remains the same, in modern days there may be trumpets, clave, maracas and pandereta (tambourine) thrown into the mix. The song repertoire has also expanded and now tends more to secular songs. After a few hasty rehersals, the group departs, bound unannounced and uninvited, to a friends house, preferably a sleeping one, to congregate on their lawn and wake them up with the cry of "asalto!" followed by the aguinaldos. Custom dictates that the "asaltado" must open the door to the revelers and offer food and drink. Some of the songs are specially engineered to embarrass the victim into opening the door:

Abreme la puerta, abreme la puerta,
Que estoy en la calle,
Y dirá la gente, que esto es un desaire,
Y dirá la gente, que esto es un desaire...

(Open the door for me, open the door for me
that I am in the street
and people will say that this is a snub)
As soon as a light goes on in the house, the group will also invariably sing:
Prendiste la luz, metiste la pata
Prendiste la luz, metiste la pata
Porque ahora sabemos que estas en tu casa...

(You turned on the light, you messed up
for now we know that you are home)
When the door is open, a great cheer goes up and the revelers enter the house singing. Typically, the group will remain for a half hour or until all the food and liquor in that house has been depleted. Joined by the members of the household, who are by now wide awake, the group will proceed to the next house, lather, rinse, repeat. Usually the last household to be visited near dawn will have been forewarned as they are expected by tradition to serve breakfast to the group.

In my youth on the island, we developed this into an extreme sport, sometimes visiting ten or more households in a single evening in groups of as many as fifty to seventy teenagers with a vast capacity for food and liquor.

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