Darrel Alejandro Holnes’s most recent book is the poetry collection “Stepmotherland.” He is a Creatives Rebuild New York playwright in residence with the Latinx Playwrights Circle.
My boyhood Christmases were haunted by the memory of the United States’ invasion of Panama. The violence of war in 1989 shook the Christmas tree in our living room until its ornaments fell and smashed on the presents below. But five years later, there was a happier memory to add: My father brought home Mariah Carey’s new “Merry Christmas” album from the U.S. military PX in Corozal.
It was the first album I listened to all the way through. I already knew most of the traditional Christmas carols on the album in English from Balboa Elementary School and was enchanted with the new songs, especially “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Growing up, I believed in Mariah Carey more than I believed in Santa Claus.
As a young Black boy growing up in an early ’90s Panama, still riddled with poverty tied to both U.S. and homegrown racism, narco wars and the recent invasion, I found in Carey’s hit song the kind of joy one could seemingly derive only from being successful in the United States. It brought the joys of the American Dream.
Nearly 30 years later, it still does. “All I Want for Christmas is You” is more popular than ever. In each holiday season since 2019, it has reached the summit of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in the United States. This year, it sits atop global Billboard charts, which rank songs based on streaming and sales from more than 200 territories.
Earlier this month, I was on my way to see “Merry Christmas to All,” Carey’s Madison Square Garden holiday show when I asked my friend Rachel: Despite having heard the song a million times, why do I still feel so fulfilled when I hear it?
In the arena, we were surrounded by fans who had flown in or driven from far-flung places to see the “Queen of Christmas.” One fan, Mai, flew in from Uruguay, and Carey gave her a front-row seat.
When the show began, red curtains parted as a concert band played a big-band-style arrangement of a section of “March” from Act 1 of another holiday classic, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” She descended onto the stage under a spotlight, riding a snowflake with her legs elegantly crossed, as she sang whistle notes to the tune of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” which she has included on special editions of her holiday album and in her Apple TV Plus show, “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special.”
Carey was then escorted off the snowflake by dancers wearing white tuxedos and top hats to a cheering crowd. She glided across the stage wearing a tiara and a sparkling silver and white ball gown with a tight bodice, splits up to her thighs, and open-toed stilettos. She was soon flanked by an all-Black church choir, the singers wearing white robes with yellow collars and starting her off with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
“What we really need to do now is give you a little tiny bit of joy for your life. Would you like that?” Carey asked as she started her second number, a funky and fun “Joy to the World.”
As Rachel and I watched, we heard at least six languages, and saw many same-sex couples, a few women in hijabs, a man with a kippah, a South Asian family of mostly elders who told me they had driven in from New Jersey — all in communion. I hear Carey’s singing — a mixture of gospel, jazz and pop — as an expression of her mixed identity as a biracial woman with an immigrant Afro-Venezuelan, Irish American heritage.
I realized that more than the song had brought me to the arena. Carey is a musical meeting ground for in-betweeners like me who have resisted the constant demands to exclusively tick a race or ethnicity box “Black” or “White” or, in my case, “Black” or “Hispanic/Latine.”
This is a common problem for people like us. A few years after the invasion, my family moved from Panama City to the Panama Canal Zone, and we were the first Black family in our neighborhood on Ancon Hill. Years later, I went to college in Houston and then graduate school in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I was constantly asked to choose an identity, to check just one box. It was miserable straining to see and present my identity through a myopic lens. Why couldn’t I always be all of me?
Carey’s grandfather was a Black Latino like me. According to video interviews with Carey and her memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” her grandfather came to the United States from Venezuela (some sources say his place of birth was Cuba) and changed his name from Roberto Núñez to Robert Carey (“Bob Carey” in her memoir). He fathered Mariah’s dad, Alfred Roy, with his wife, an African American woman named Addie Cole. Alfred was consequently part Afro-Venezuelan and part African American, and due to his father’s name change became Alfred Roy Carey, not Alfredo Núñez.
Carey talks about her Latin American heritage in her memoir, which she co-wrote with Michaela Angela Davis, and has engaged with her heritage musically in many of her works: the “Mariah en Español” EP released in 1998; a Spanish-language version of her duet with Miguel, “#Beautiful”; a bossa nova version of her ballad “Butterfly,” and more. She even speaks some Spanish in the music video for “Honey,” which she shot in Puerto Rico.
She has seemingly refused to choose: She lets her music encompass the various identities that make her who she is today. What joy to embody one’s complexity rather than hide it.
Perhaps this is the secret to her diverse appeal and why it feels so patriotic — so quintessentially American. Her radically inclusive and fluid style of holiday music is now part of our national heritage, expanding what it means to be from this nation.
Last century, it seemed that to become an American icon you played to the dominant majority, but this century, our icons play to a global majority of minorities — like those in Carey’s audience at the Garden. The endurance of her music across four decades despite racism and prejudice is why my parents wanted me to believe in her story. And it’s why her music matters today. The little joy she attempts to bring each holiday is not only an escape from but also a way through today’s broken empires.
After all, the conquests and slavery we survived on this continent were about the pursuit of gold, but the American Dream is about the pursuit of happiness. If all of us, the people of the in-between spaces at the show, could lift our voices to the heavens as Mariah Carey did in the arena that night, maybe we could be heard, be seen, be understood, be valued in this country as we value her. And isn’t that our 21st-century American Dream?