When the Neighbors Aren’t Catholic

A Chicken, a Plastic Pumpkin, and the Challenge of Loving Your Neighbor

In a family room filled with children and toys—dolls, blocks, puzzles and board games—was my brother Manny’s big orange plastic Halloween pumpkin.

Living in a Midwestern suburb in Illinois, this pumpkin’s toy life was predictable and ordinary. A place to store hot wheel cars or markers. And our Catholic school lives and weekly Mass attendance were predictable and ordinary too, punctuated with the usual celebrations of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

That is until my parents announced our move to Miami, Florida. The five of us kids packed our clothes, books, and toys, including the pumpkin.

There were plenty of new things to see and do in Miami—sand to run in, ocean waves to ride, pelicans to feed. So much so, that at first we didn’t really notice our neighbors to the right of the house we were renting.

Until one day my sister spotted the whole neighbor family wearing all white clothes. And the next day too. And the day after that. The mother wore white to go grocery shopping. The boy wore white to school. And white to walk the dog.

One weekend dozens of people arrived at our neighbor’s house for what looked like a cookout. An all-white cookout. Guests threw coins at the bottom of a small statue as they entered the family’s front door. In the garage men set up drums. In the backyard, food and more food was being prepared.

And then we saw it—a chicken. A live chicken tied to a tree, and somehow we knew that chicken just wasn’t going to survive the day.

We had heard about the Caribbean religious practice of Santería. Supposedly, sacrificing a chicken could bring you good luck and forgiveness of sins. Did our neighbor’s chicken know he was going to become a ritual offering?

My brother wanted to protest the chicken’s short life. He ran and fetched my cousin and the two of them reappeared wrapped in white sheets. The plastic pumpkin got snatched from its cozy spot in the corner, and Manny banged on it with a spoon. The pumpkin had been called into protest duty. Manny and my cousin marched up and down the sidewalk pleading for the release of the chicken. “The chicken! Please don’t kill the chicken!”

Some guests yelled at my brother and most ignored him. The chicken got taken into the now closed garage, and we never did see it again. Hours later cars drove away with all the white clothed passengers.

The next day our all-white neighbor lady knocked on our door and started yelling at my mother for my brother’s disrespect. My hot-tempered mom fired back that she didn’t much like the killing of chickens, and wondered if they charged fees for their ceremony. Neighbor lady yelled. My mom yelled. Finally neighbor lady boomed that we shouldn’t be surprised if our house came down in flames one day, because she knew a spell that could do that. My mother boomed back that they shouldn’t be surprised if the IRS man appeared at their door. Neighbor lady backed down quick, but she did yell a little more, only meeker, and finally she left.

Our house never did burn down. My mother never did call the IRS. And we learned to not pay much mind to the occasional white cookout. One morning our neighbors’ car wouldn’t start, and Manny offered to take their son to school on the handle bars of his bike. They accepted.

Soon after my parents bought a house of their own, and that plastic pumpkin with its slightly more colorful history got packed up again.