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Christmas Tradition Transplanted - 2003-12-24

The winter holiday season in the United States is replete with the traditions and customs brought to this country by people from all over the world who have settled here. One such tradition, transplanted from Latin America, is the Posada, a symbolic search for shelter that recreates what Joseph and Mary went through on the night the baby Jesus was born. Here, it’s combined with an opportunity to provide both entertainment and gifts for poor children from the Latino immigrant community.

The ritual begins with Joseph, Mary’s husband, pounding on the door and asking for shelter for himself and his wife, who is about to give birth.

The audience, sitting in a darkened church hall holding lighted candles, sings the traditional negative response.

Through two more verses, the Holy Family asks for shelter and is refused twice, until finally a good innkeeper – again, sung by the audience – agrees to accept the wanderers.

With this the doors to the hall open, and excited children file into the room, eyes wide at the decorated Christmas tree in a corner, the bags and bags of gifts waiting to be distributed, and the smells of good Latin American food that has been prepared for them. This Posada was reenacted in Washington’s Columbia Heights section, where many immigrants from Latin America live. It’s organized largely by a local health clinic, La Clinica del Pueblo, in a nearby Episcopalian church. Luiz Morales, the director of social services at La Clinica, explains that the Posada tradition plays out a little differently in Latin American countries.

“The Posada is a Latin American tradition for Christmas time in which there’s a group of people singing and they go from house to house asking for Posada. Posada is – what is the word in English, when Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem asking for a place to stay. And in some houses they say no, you can’t stay here, and in the last house where they go there is something prepared for them, and they say, well, come in, we have some thing for you, and there is a big celebration after that.”

In Washington, La Clinica del Pueblo has been organizing a Posada the past ten years or so.

“We do it for the clients, which are mostly immigrant Latinos, very low income, and we do it because some of the parents don’t have any money to buy gifts for the kids, so we provide toys for the kids in this event. We go in the community and ask churches, organizations, and they provide different toys for the kids.”

One of the co-organizers of the event, Katalina Talero, believes that keeping the tradition of Posada alive helps strengthen the identity of Latino immigrants in America.

“This is a very important tradition, it’s part of what keeps Latinos Latinos. And it’s interesting to look around and watch the children start to sing, watch the children start to practice in their own language and finding out what their traditions are, because that’s really what keeps us alive as a people.”

Miss Talero says Columbia Heights is a welcoming and supportive neighborhood for its Latino residents.

“The Columbia Heights community is such a vibrant and open community for Latinos, you know. At this point, there are various churches in the area that are central meeting places for Latinos. The types of things that go on often have to do with health services, with social services, with advocacy and organizing youth. We want to make sure that adolescents have better things to do than just hang out on the street.”

Katalina Talero’s family came to the United States from Bogota, Colombia in 1980. She says her father saw a newspaper ad for an entry-level position in the World Bank, and applied. To everyone’s surprise he got the job, and the World Bank subsequently brought the family to Washington. Ms Talero, who was born five months later, has lived her entire life in the United States, but she identifies with the immigrant Latino community and devotes a lot of time and energy to serving it.

“I spent four years in Washington, D.C. thinking about my resume, thinking about my career, things like that. But really the only reason I do it is so that I can come on evenings like this and think about how I can better work the resources I have so that that child that’s walking through the door, the next time that child needs access to health services that child has that access. How can I use everything I’ve learned just to make it easier for the children that are coming up of the next generation to access resources so they will not be frustrated, so that hopefully we will have a generation of participants in society. And I would also like to see this next generation of children really feeling pride in their identity. And I think that events like this make the difference. When they light the candles and sing the songs, there is a beauty in that that cannot be denied.”

(Children's choir singing Las Posadas)

English Feature #7-38180 Broadcast December 29, 2003