Latino tradition extends Christmas

Holiday: Parents like keeping the feast of the Epiphany alive, and Latino children are delighted to participate.

January 06, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

For dozens of Baltimore's Latino children, a Three Kings Day celebration yesterday formed the second half of a glorious holiday doubleheader. Eleven days after Christmas, the kids gathered in Fells Point to sing "Feliz Navidad," indulge in a feast and expand stockpiles of presents that already included E-Z Bake Ovens and other toys.

For their parents, the traditional Latin American holiday of Spanish origin offered a chance to celebrate gifts of a different sort: the growth of Baltimore's Hispanic population, and a new home for a principal Latino education and outreach group.

This was the fifth year in a row that Education-Based Latino Outreach, or EBLO, has staged the celebration marking the arrival of the three biblical wise men to welcome the newborn Christ child. But it's the first time EBLO has held the event in its new home, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's former Fells Point branch, one of five that closed to the public on Sept. 1.

For years, EBLO was based in the leaky basement of a Canton church. Several months ago, it signed a lease for its brighter digs.

The new space on South Ann Street is closer to the neighborhood where many Hispanic families live and work. "And the basement doesn't leak -- we had some problems before," said Jose Ruiz, the group's founder and the Hispanic liaison to the mayor's office.

EBLO's leaders hope they can use the larger space to add to services that include Saturday tutoring for kids and English as a second language for adults.

"We would like to have technology courses, citizenship courses and courses teaching immigrant parents how to get their kids into college," said Luis Hernandez, who was recently named by EBLO's board as executive director, effective next month.

A growing community

Ruiz said Baltimore's Hispanic population, which grew steadily in the 1990s, isn't adequately reflected in the 2000 census.

The official count lists the population at 11,061 -- or 1.7 percent of the city's total -- but Ruiz believes many Hispanics did not answer census takers' queries because they feared for their privacy.

He recalled that the city's Hispanic population seemed like "just a handful" 25 years ago, and "now there are mom-and-pop businesses all around Broadway."

The population's diversity was reflected at yesterday's fete, which included kids of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran and other descents.

Kings delight children

About 60 children sang songs and collected presents. The highlight was the appearance on a small stage of three "kings" with costume beards and crowns. The trio bounded onto a small stage like heavyweight boxers parading into a ring, eliciting howls from the audience.

In many Latin American countries, small children receive their Christmas gifts on Three Kings Day. They leave hay under their beds for the kings' camels to eat during their nightlong journey.

Some of the Baltimore kids spoke yesterday of a double bounty -- they received presents on Christmas and again on Three Kings Day. The holiday is usually celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6) but EBLO held the festivities yesterday to coincide with its regular children's programs.

Tradition handed down

Barbara Elias, 33, of Highlandtown, who brought her two young daughters, said she wants them to share the tradition she enjoyed while growing up in New York City, where her Puerto Rico-born parents were also raised.

"It's part of our heritage," she said. "Although it's mostly celebrated in Spanish culture, the three kings are a major part of the Christmas story -- how they made the extra effort to find [the Christ child] and bring gifts."

Elias, an interpreter for a health center, speaks English and Spanish at home. She says she makes sure her kids can understand English first, so they can succeed in school.

Elias said this year's dual holidays were split between visiting relatives in New York and buying gifts. Daughter Amanda, 10, got a Barbie and an E-Z Bake Oven for Christmas, and now will be allowed to select a Three Kings Day present from a toy store.

"She'll more than likely get a video game for her Game Boy, which is a permanent appendage to her body," Elias said.

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