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Recognizing the real gift in a downsized Christmas

For some Southland families, the holiday was leaner this year. But they still had a lot to be thankful for -- especially the importance of being together.

December 26, 2009|By Alexandra Zavis
  • Even though it's been a tough year for her family, Aura Amaya-Lopez, 38, center, said it has helped them see what's important: being together. "Honestly, I'm happier than ever before," Amaya-Lopez said, celebrating Christmas with (left to right) Marvin-Omar Suriano, 8, her husband Wilmer Lopez, Elliott Morales, 15, and William Suriano, 12.
Even though it's been a tough year for her family, Aura Amaya-Lopez,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

A few weeks before Christmas, Aura Amaya-Lopez gathered her six children in their Pasadena living room to break the news that there would be no presents under their small plastic tree.

The kids took it bravely, but she knew they were disappointed.

"The economy is just really bad," she said she explained to them. "We are going to play games to make it really fun and be all together, which is the most important thing."

In some households across the Southland, Christmas was a little different this year. The festivities were more modest. More gifts were made at home instead of purchased at the mall. Although times may be lean, Amaya-Lopez and her children say that has a way of making you appreciate what is most important about the holidays: giving from the heart, if not the pocketbook, and spending time with loved ones.

"We're all here," she said with a cheery grin. "Nobody is sick. We made it through the year. Thank God."

Amaya-Lopez hates seeing the kids do without. It's easier for her, she said.

Growing up in Guatemala City, she said, there was never enough money at home. Her father, a professional tennis player, drank most of his earnings. Her mother moved to Los Angeles to work as a housekeeper so she could send money home. Amaya-Lopez was 15 when her mother obtained a green card and was able to bring the family to America.

Since then, they have always spent Christmas together. They attend midnight services, then walk to Grandma's house for a big dinner featuring Amaya-Lopez's homemade tamales. In the morning, they open presents.

But last year, Amaya-Lopez lost her job as a manager of a Denny's restaurant. She was unemployed for seven months before finding part-time work as a cashier at a Noah's bakery. Her husband, Wilmer Lopez, also works part time as a cook at a McDonald's. Even so, when Lopez's brother, Marcelo, was thinking of moving back to Honduras because he could not find enough painting and building work to pay the bills, they insisted he move in.

The family had to cancel their cellphone and satellite service to make ends meet. But Amaya-Lopez was determined that they would not miss Christmas dinner. So the woman who has always made a point of giving to charity swallowed her pride and signed up at the local food pantry.

"It's a little hard," she said. "I wish I could help instead of being helped."

Even in more affluent areas, pantries supplied the ingredients for more holiday feasts this year than last. The Foothill Unity Center, which runs pantries in Pasadena and Monrovia, distributed Christmas food boxes and gifts to 1,800 families, double the number from 2007. They include laid-off bank workers, furloughed civil servants and many others who never before needed social services, said Joan Whitenack, the center's executive director.

"But you know what?" Whitenack said. "I have never seen people come out as much to help. . . . They are giving more this year because they feel blessed because they have a job."

When Amaya-Lopez dropped by one of the center's holiday giveaways this week, there were no tamales. But there were turkeys, hams, pies and even Christmas trees. Best of all, Amaya-Lopez was handed a bag bulging with shirts, socks, books and toys.

"I was about to cry," she said as a volunteer helped her push an overflowing shopping cart to the car. "This is the first Christmas where I don't even have $20 in my pocket, and look at all this!"

In Monrovia, Mildred and Roberto Ramos were also counting their blessings. Usually, the couple and their two sons would throw a big Christmas Eve party. Mildred would get her hair and makeup done. But this year, they could not afford an expensive gathering or trips to the salon.

The couple's house was repossessed three years ago. Then Roberto Ramos, who works as a cook at an El Torito restaurant, was asked to take a 10% pay cut. With their eldest son beginning Pasadena City College, Mildred Ramos said, "I told my kids we are giving hugs and kisses this year."

But to her surprise, friends and neighbors rallied around, dropping off small presents and gift certificates for the kids. "I feel so blessed," she said.

In Altadena, Mercedes Bolanos and Melik Kurdoghlian were keeping things festive. A manger scene was arranged on the fireplace, and their children's wish lists were pinned to a twinkling tree.

For 19 years, Kurdoghlian managed his own jewelry manufacturing company. It grew to a half-million-dollar operation, with 20 employees. But people stopped spending as much on luxuries, and three years ago he lost the business.

The family had to sell their house with two waterfalls in Pasadena. He now earns $10 an hour counting chips at a casino; his wife works at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.

"I help poor people at my work," she said. "I never thought I would be one of them."

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