In the United States, Latin American families celebrate the Three Kings Festival


January 6, 2019 / 09:52 GMT

By Gwen Aviles

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz still remembers the excitement of being a child in Puerto Rico, anticipating the arrival of the Three Kings on January 6th.

"We would look for grass for the camels to eat in exchange for gifts," said Acevedo-Muñoz, now a professor at the film and animation studies department of the film. University of Colorado at Boulder. "Then we put a box and leave it under our Christmas tree, our parents came to take the grass to give us the illusion that the Three Sages had come."

For Acevedo-Muñoz, picking the grass on the eve of the Three Kings Festival was "the most memorable practice" of the holiday.

The Three Kings, as well as a queen, at the 42nd annual celebration of Three Kings Day at the Museo del Barrio in New York. Gwen Aviles / NBC News

Although the traditions of this festival vary across cultures and nationalities, many Latin American families in the United States maintain a popular tradition in Spain and in Latin American countries. Epiphany commemorates the biblical story of the birth of Jesus Christ. According to the Gospel of Matthew, three Magi or Magi – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – followed a star through the desert for 12 days until Bethlehem in order to find the baby Jesus and bring him gifts.

"My most memorable memories are the times my family went to the 8th Street parade [Calle Ocho in Miami], Said Lucia Cantero, whose family is Spanish. "It was a brightly colored and aesthetic procession and a representation of the biblical history of Epiphany."

The "madrinas" or "godmothers" of the Parade of the Three Children of the Museo del Barrio are awarded. Gwen Aviles / NBC News

As a child, Cantero was particularly struck by the "visual and ethnic diversity" represented by the Three Kings.

"Los Reyes Magos was a lot more logical with the Nativity scenes that we had seen throughout Christmas, that a bearded white old man cut down a chimney with reindeer parked outside," he said. Cantero, assistant professor at the University of San Francisco. "Plus, we were in Miami and nobody had chimneys."

The decorations are placed outside the Museo del Barrio in preparation for the parade of the Three Kings Day on January 4, 2019, before the Three Kings Day on January 6. Gwen Aviles / NBC News

Ivette Compean Rodriguez, executive director of the Mexican Cultural Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says that a cultural tradition is to place letters at the bottom of the pillow so that the Three Kings can take them.

If the children are well, they receive gifts that morning.

"We had to behave," said Cantero. "We were made to be good, like the Americans with Santa Claus."

In Latin America, the Three Kings Day celebrations still reign, as Heidi Zimmerman Melgarejo, owner of a company and restaurant owner in Mexico, told NBC News.

"The children of Mexico (most of them, especially those from small towns) do not ask for gifts from Santa, but rather from the Three Kings. They write letters that are often sent to the sky attached to a balloon. "

Families feast on "Rosca de Reyes", a sweet bread with Mexican sweets called "acitrón", figs and candied cherries. According to Zimmerman Melgarejo, these ornaments symbolize the jewels of the crown.

There is also a special surprise hidden in the cake: a baby Jesus figurine. Whoever finds the baby Jesus in his slice is blessed, but there are also obligations. If a person accidentally chews on it, she must take her to the church on February 2 (Candlemaker's Day) and hold a dinner for her guests.

To feast, families drink a Mexican hot chocolate called "Abuelita".

In the United States, community groups and organizations in highly Latino towns and villages have preserved the traditions of Epiphany. In Philadelphia, the Mexican Cultural Center organizes holidays Event on Sunday.

Friday in New York, El Museo del Barrio, devoted to Latin American and Latin American art and history, organized its 42nd Annual Three Kings Parade. Hundreds of people gathered in the Spanish quarter of Harlem, many dressed in colorful costumes, wrapped in garlands and wearing capes like the Three Sages to celebrate the feast.

The wise kings and the queen at the 42nd annual celebration of Three Kings Day at the Museum of Music. Gwen Aviles / NBC News

Recalling the growing Hispanic influence in the United States, Three Kings takes place in large venues such as Disneyland California, as well as Busch Gardens and Sea World Florida.

For most Latin American families, Christmas is more important than Three Kings. But for many parents, Three Kings is a tradition to keep, even on a smaller scale.

"Día de los Reyes aims to teach children the community of celebration, community, belonging and recognition," said Harry Franqui Rivera, Associate Professor of History at Bloomfield College Bloomfield. , in New Jersey.

Rivera, who travels regularly to Puerto Rico, said the Three Kings would be better this year than in 2018.

"Last year, there was no holiday season in Puerto Rico because of [Hurricane]Maria, "he says. But even before Thanksgiving this year, the houses were decorated and there was Christmas music. "

"This year," said Rivera, "we are doing double."