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Jahir Rodas cuts his first Christmas tree and keeps his grandmother’s memory alive

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
10-year-old Jahir Rodas, left, and his parents Vicky and Nelson Rodas get ready to load up their Christmas tree during the annual tree-cutting and holiday posada celebration hosted by Defiende Nuestra Tierra, Wilderness Workshop, and the White River National Forest. The event last Saturday was Jahir Rodas’ first time harvesting his own tree.

The energy was high in the parking lot at the Babbish Gulch Trailhead near Sunlight Mountain outside of Glenwood Springs last Saturday despite it being a gray, snowy day.

Bad Bunny played on a loudspeaker, a few people stood around the fire sipping a Mexican hot chocolate drink called champurrado, and Smokey Bear greeted families as they arrived.

“We are having tamales and people are getting ready to cut their trees, and right now we’re just gathering here next to the bonfire,” said Omar Sarabia, the director of Wilderness Workshop’s Latino-led environmental advocacy program Defiende Nuestra Tierra.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Steven and Hanna Arauza introduce their kids to Smokey the Bear at the Babbish Gulch Trailhead near Sunlight Mountain before heading out to cut down their Christmas tree. More than 100 people signed up for this year’s Christmas tree-cutting event on Dec. 3.

It’s the third year that Defiende Nuestra Tierra and Wilderness Workshop have partnered with the White River National Forest for the free, bilingual holiday posada celebration.

“A posada is a traditional party before Christmas in Mexico,” Sarabia said. “But for us, it's just a great excuse to go into the outdoors and have tamales and champurrado and cut a tree.”

He said it's also a day to spend time with friends and family.

“And that's what we're trying to do — connect the Latino community with our local forest, but at the same time create memories for their families as well,” Sarabia said.

WW Posada Christmas Tree Event
Samantha Sheppard
Courtesy of Wilderness Workshop
Smokey the Bear and several Forest Service rangers help a young kid spin the prize wheel at this year’s Christmas tree-cutting holiday posada in the Thompson Divide area. It’s the third year the White River National Forest has organized the event with Wilderness Workshop’s Defiende Nuestra Tierra program.

About 120 people registered for the event this year, including Edwards resident Vicky Rodas, who heard about the event on the local Spanish radio station, La Nueva Mix, and told her husband immediately.

“I was like, we should do this,” she said. “I checked on the internet and then I sent him the link so he can sign up for us.”

Over at the Forest Service tent, Rodas and her family listened in as the event organizers gave out free tree-cutting permits and explained the process in Spanish and English.

“This tag is what makes it legit and you're gonna put it on the base of the tree when you're done,” said Will Grandbois, a representative with the White River National Forest. “You can't take a tree more than six inches in diameter or 15-feet tall.”

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
A local family celebrates a successful Christmas tree harvest with Defiende Nuestra Tierra’s program director, Omar Sarabia, right. Attendees at this year’s holiday posada were given free tree-cutting permits to use in the White River National Forest.

Grandbois handed Vicky’s husband, Nelson Rodas, a small hand saw and pointed the family in the direction of a nearby trail.

As we headed into the forest, Nelson told me he works in construction and has experience cutting down trees, but he’d never harvested a Christmas tree before.

It was also the first time for Nelson and Vicky’s youngest son, Yahir Rodas.

“So this is your first time ever doing this?,” I asked.

“Yes and it’s fun,” Jahir replied.

Jahir told me he wanted to pick out the perfect tree.

“We're so excited to do this this year before it's getting late for him to get excited to, you know, cut his own tree,” Vicky said.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Jahir Rodas, left, gets the hand-saw ready while his dad, Nelson Rodas, clears some dead branches under the tree they found near the Babbish Gulch Trailhead outside of Glenwood Springs. Jahir’s mother wanted to give Jahir the same tree-cutting experience her mother gave her growing up in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Jahir is 10-years-old and turning 11 soon and Vicky wanted to give Jahir the same experience her own mom gave her growing up in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

“I grew up in a big family and we never had the option to buy a fake Christmas tree,” Vicky said. “So every year my mom would come and say, ‘This afternoon we're gonna go to pick up our Christmas tree.’”

Vicky’s mom would lead the family out behind the house and they would cut down their own tree to take home.

“We would decorate it with the things that we had around the house, no ornaments or anything like that,” she said. “It was really nice to grow up that way.”

Vicky said her mom would sing traditional Mexican songs while they were cutting down the tree.

“She was always singing for us and telling us stories about her childhood, her mom,” Vicky said. “It was really special for us.”

Her mom passed away about nine years ago, but Vicky has been keeping her memory alive for Jahir.

“She used to sing for him when he was two-years-old,” she said. “I have videos of when she was really sick, she got cancer, and she was still singing and happy and it was really beautiful.”

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Jahir Rodas, left, helps his parents clear the bottom branches off their Christmas tree to make Christmas wreaths for their front door. The family, who moved to Colorado in 2005, drove over an hour from their home in Edwards for this year’s tree-cutting outside of Glenwood Springs.

Back on the trail, Jahir and Nelson kept a keen eye out for the perfect tree.

“We can start looking over here,” Nelson said. “We need one at least four-feet tall.”

After the family passed several not-quite-perfect candidates, Jahir spotted a small tree at the top of a snowbank above the trail.

The snow was knee-deep in some places and by the time Vicky and Nelson reached the tree, Jahir was already pulling out the saw.

Nelson showed Jahir how to hold it properly and after a few minutes of sawing, Jahir stepped back to assess his handy-work.

“I'm almost halfway,” he proclaimed.

“Not even,” Nelson said, chuckling.

The father-son duo took turns for several more minutes before we heard a snapping sound and Nelson looked up with a smile.

“It's not too big, I think that one is perfect,” Vicky said. “And the smell is going to be awesome.”

After taking several family photos, Nelson threw the tree over his shoulder and led the way back to the trail, retracing his steps through the snow.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Jahir Rodas, left, leads the way down the trail while his dad carries the Christmas tree they harvested at this year’s tree-cutting posada on Dec. 3. Jahir and his family hope to come back again next year.

Back at the trailhead, Nelson secured the tree in the back of the truck and Vicky took Jahir to get a plate of tamales.

Vicky said she was glad for the chance to see Jahir cut down his first Christmas tree — and to keep her mom’s memory alive.

“I keep in my memory just the way that she kept us happy and taught us to enjoy the things that we had,” Vicky said. “We don't have that much, but we are always grateful to be, you know, a big family.”

For his part, Jahir said he probably would’ve been playing his Nintendo at home if he wasn’t out here with his family — and he’s already planning to come back next year.

“Maybe next time I might be 12,” he said. “Because this year I'm turning 11 and next year I'm 12.”

Jahir said he was looking forward to setting the tree up at home with Christmas lights and ‘maybe a few ornaments too.’

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.