A Tale of Los Angeles

Posadas: Nourishing Community

by | Dec 29, 2003

I step into the blackness and light my candle. Rustling song sheets, towering paper mache puppets of Mary and Joseph, and a legion of hand-painted banners claim this dark strip of public housing in East Los Angeles. Neighbors nod to one another as someone intones the first word of prayer. “Padre Nuestro” rises into the soft chill of mid-December. Next to me, a man tunes a guitar connected to a small amplifier strapped to a dolly pushed by his compadre. “Amen.” The man strikes a boisterous chord and I sing, part of the messy, sweet, slow chorus ambling down the block.

I first participated in las Posadas as a visitor to my husband-to-be’s Gulf Coast hometown in Mexico in the mid-1990s. Ritual processions that take place in many Mexican neighborhoods nine days before Christmas, las Posadas re-enact Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter, a simple slice of the Christmas story. Deeply intrigued and inspired by that first Posada to learn more and to find them where I live in Los Angeles, I joined processions in an East L.A. public housing development, organized them on the west side of Los Angeles for a social service organization, and coaxed oral and written testimony about local las Posadas celebrations from acquaintances and libraries. And, I continue performing them year after year with my in-laws and friends in Mexico.

These experiences convince me that las Posadas, like other rich cultural traditions that immigrants bring to the U.S., lie largely untapped. They’ve got great potential to nourish community and to promote a deeper sense of belonging and participation—both for immigrants and the U.S.-born. In Los Angeles as in many cities, people long for a deeper, or for any, sense of community. With a vast Latino population, what an excellent opportunity Los Angeles has to cultivate rich participatory, socially connecting traditions like las Posadas—already transplanted by Mexican immigrants!

Sad to say, if we ignore these precious seedlings, the assimilation process will probably bulldoze them in two generations. My family has been in this country too long (my dad’s family has roots in South Texas since the early 1700s) to compare to the average second, third or fourth-generation story. But, like us, most Mexican Americans during the 1950s and 60s grew up heedless of celebrations and customs their parents and grandparents had practiced. The Catholic Church in the U.S. of my childhood forged a community of faith, but on the assimilation model, actively discouraging any indigenous, foreign-sounding or -looking rituals. Ironically, at least in the L.A. diocese today, the Church depends heavily on the participation of Mexican immigrants and has come to embrace their customs.

Forty to fifty people of all ages sit quietly in the Dolores Mission School cafeteria. At a table covered with brown paper, I stoop over a small girl. Together we paste down the final palm tree in a scene of Bethlehem replete with glue-stains and glitter while her mother rescues a small pot of paint from the fingers of a younger brother. Behind me, women and men turn out stacks of papel picado, chiseling intricate patterns into layers of colored tissue paper. Young girls assemble garlands of paper flowers by the kitchen door. I wander upstairs for fresh “East Los” air, mildly cool under the early December sun. Near the hand-painted “Free Art Workshop Today/Taller de Arte Gratuito” sign, a giant paper-mache puppet head lies almost finished. Two high school girls dip newsprint strips into a glue mix and smooth the final layer. A young man struggles with a vest harness that supports the companion puppet. I hoist him into the frame and look up. The bold face of a brown Virgin Mary gazes over me, her dark eyes scanning the adjacent soccer field.

What did I immediately notice and enjoy about las Posadas—”Regular” people preparing for and performing them. Most people who make art for a Posada presentation never call themselves “artists,” although the quality of their songs and crafts can rival what a pro might do. Instead, participation counts first—actively and at whatever level of expertise offered.

I have seen a Posada performed by a walking choir accompanied by a bounty of musicians and by a handful of giddy neighbors with an out-of-tune guitar. To prepare for a low-tech Posada, participants bustle about pulling costumes together (usually a couple of young people dress up as Joseph and Mary to lead the crowd—the holy mom-to-be with a pillow for a belly under her robes), preparing traditional foods, and stuffing piñatas full of candy for the children. The more extravagant Posadas can inspire hand-made puppets, banners, paper flowers, informal rhythm instruments, papel picado, and piñatas.

I try to stay with the group while singing, negotiating songbook pages and keeping my candle lit. A small group of the loudest singers hustle ahead and slip just inside the door of our first stop—they’ll have to sing through an almost shut door to the crowd outside. The younger ones who haven’t done this before, or people like me who didn’t grow up doing this fumble in the candlelight for the words to the Las Posadas ballad. Meanwhile, someone at the front next to the outside of the door who knows it all from memory starts the musical story. In the imploring voice of Saint Joseph, I belt out the first verse from the songbook:

En nombre del cielo, os pido Posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada. (In the name of heaven we ask for shelter, because my loving wife cannot be walking around.)

The cranky reply shoots through a crack in the door:

Aquí no es mesón, siguan adelante, pues no he de abrir no sea algún tunante. (This is not an inn; go on ahead because I cannot open as you might be a thief.)

The ballad begins, rich thematic territory about the experience of seeking shelter and being turned away. Some non-traditional las Posadas processions in Los Angeles use that theme as an advocacy tool. A community economic development corporation, also in East Los Angeles, sponsored a Posada involving hundreds of participants, educating and motivating the public about the need for low-income housing and safer neighborhoods. In another area of LA, a decade-long tradition of an “AIDS Posada” replays every year, organized out of a (non-Catholic) church. Started by a now-deceased Latino AIDS activist, this bilingual Posada involves a host of other Latino and non-Latino participants in a peace-march style procession to City Hall, advocating for housing and other rights for people with HIV/AIDS. A Posada doesn’t have to be traditional or owned exclusively by Latinos to be effective as a community-building tool.

While a small, neighborhood- or church-organized las Posadas nurtures traditional activities, the larger, and secular celebrations involve more people and less tradition. Traditional and non-traditional cross-fertilize, encouraging thoughtful participation on both sides. Think about how Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead evolved in the U.S. In the 1980s, Chicano activists revived Day of the Dead, a spiritual tradition almost forgotten here. The Chicano version of Day of the Dead, often politically infused and partly secular, contrasts with the intimate, relatively religious and largely non-political in-home practices by many Mexicans and Chicanos. Now, twenty years later, Día de los Muertos thrives as an annual, publicly celebrated event in many U.S. cities with large Latino populations. The private, more traditional expressions continue to exist. It’s even likely that more people create home altars now because of their exposure to the holiday from public celebrations, rather than as a personal remembrance of experience in Mexico.

I perform Posadas year after year in Xalapa, Veracruz, with my in-laws and friends. Perched at the edge of a curb on a bustling brick-laid side street in Xalapa, I sing despite the chill and the interminable drizzle, over truck motors and speeding scooters, pleading at another house with the “innkeepers.” They reply through the metalwork gate:

¿Eres tu José? ¿Tu esposa es Marí­a? ¡Entren peregrinos, no los conocía! (Is it you, Joseph? Is your wife Mary? Come on in, pilgrims, I did not know you!)

I enter as a joyful new melody and rhythm fills the street and the “inn”:

…aunque es pobre la morada, se las doy de corazón. (…even though the household is poor, I give it to you from the heart.)

Even if my family traditions in Los Angeles diverge from the so-called mainstream, in my childhood experience only the custom of caroling parties resemble las Posadas, a dim comparison. A Latina born and raised in the U.S., I grew up eating tamales and buñuelos and going to midnight mass at Christmastime. However, Posadas were not part of that experience. I now find refuge by practicing Posadas amidst the commercialization that assaults us all at that time of year. What I especially like is the way a Posada can happen in complete independence of any formal institution, and how it physically and metaphorically weaves a story through streets and in homes, creating an invisible fabric between me and my neighbors and the spaces we live and move in.

Las Posadas exist as only one of many more widely known and practiced traditions in Mexican culture—many, many others are performed locally all over Latin America. In Los Angeles, I am one of the thousands so far who have adapted or adopted them. We tell stories aloud together in our city in this way, increasing the strength of the urban social fabric, one thread at a time.

The procession ends. Cold, hunger, fatigue just beneath my smile, I wander into the welcoming home longing for a place to sit. Thick wet air, warm from cooking and body heat, embraces me and fogs my glasses. My husband’s gregarious niece smiles at me from across the room and vigorously gestures at a tiny but empty spot next to her on the sofa. A little girl and her younger sister skip from guest to guest, holding out a box stuffed with little paper bags, envueltos, crammed with small fruits, unshelled roasted peanuts, and a bit of candy. Somebody’s tía shuffles around the room with steaming platters heaped with treats. Soon, I sit greedily balancing a warm pambazo (heavenly, sweet biscuits stuffed fat with meat) on one leg and a buñuelo (those messy but wonderful thin pastries dusted with cinnamon sugar) on the other, holding a cup of ponche (hot and syrupy with bits of bobbing fruit to bite while sipping) with one hand, my envuelto clutched in the other. The little girls reappear with a tray of fresh corn tamales.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2
Josephine Ramírez is a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design this year. Back home in Los Angeles, she is a Program Officer for the Grant Program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Some of the research for this article was done several years ago as part of a project she conducted for the Getty Research Institute. She gives special thanks to Betto Arcos and to Mark Kramer.

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