Spiritual holiday journey helps keep heritage alive

Posada: Latinos in the Annapolis area celebrate Christmas with a traditional festival modeled on the travels of Mary and Joseph.

December 25, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Yovanni Fuentes knows that costumes aren't traditional Christmas apparel in Annapolis. But the 13-year-old spent last night walking the streets of the state capital dressed as Jose -- Spanish for Joseph, the foster father of Jesus -- as part of a Latin-American Advent ritual.

"Sometimes people laugh," said Fuentes, who shrugs off the occasional giggle or curious stare and embraces his costume as a valuable part of his Mexican heritage. "I always want to keep in touch with my culture, so it's worth it."

Fuentes and about 40 other Annapolis-area Latinos have spent the past nine nights re-enacting the final stage of Joseph and Mary's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a tradition known as a posada, which means "lodging" in Spanish.

In many Latin American countries, posadas are a major event in which people knock on strangers' doors asking for shelter for nine nights ending Christmas Eve.

In Annapolis, though, the festivities are more subdued. "We don't knock on strangers' doors," said the Rev. John Lavin of St. Mary's Church in Annapolis.

And the tradition takes on a different meaning in the United States. "Many were forced by economic and sometimes political situations to leave their own countries, so I think there's a parallel between their situation and Joseph and Mary's," said Lavin, who is in charge of the Latino congregation at the church.

Posadas probably came to Latin America with the Spanish explorers in the late 16th century, historians say. Most of the nearly 40 Annapolis residents who celebrated the event are from Mexico, where the festival is "one of the prettiest things of the year," said Amada Guevara, a St. Mary's parishioner.

In her hometown of Chietla, Mexico, thousands of people walk the streets in costumes and hold candles, Guevara said. People gather to pray, then light candles and walk the streets, singing and asking to be given shelter, with each party visiting three houses. The group is turned away until the third home each night, when they are let in and given snacks and drinks. On Christmas Eve, the group has a large party.

Annapolis posadas are slightly different. Instead of going to three homes, the group goes to only one. Instead of traditional food such as tacos or tamales, the group eats and drinks American staples like animals crackers and Coca-Cola.

"It's also much warmer at home," said Mariana Quizhpi, a native of Guayaquil, a humid coastal city in Ecuador.

Last night, Lavin led a formal Mass before the group went out.

On another night, about 30 people crowded into Quizhpi's living room, kneeling shoulder to shoulder for a short prayer.

The group then gathered on a narrow street on the east side of Annapolis and tried to light candles in the whipping wind while Fuentes and his sister got into their Mary and Joseph costumes.

Fuentes led the group as they walked a few blocks to another church member's home, singing the entire way, even when two cars pulled up behind them. A few members glanced over their shoulders, but they continued at a leisurely pace while the drivers tapped their wheels with puzzled expressions.

One car finally pulled into a driveway, while the other backed up and took a different route.

A few residents leaned out their windows.

"My girls are asking me: `Daddy, what's going on?'" Bill Sheets said as he stood on his porch and watched the group.

Sheets said that he had seen a posada procession the year before and that one of his neighbor's explained the significance. "It's interesting," he said. "You don't see things like that very often."

When the group arrived at their destination, half went inside while the rest shivered on the porch. The groups sang to each other, those outside asking to be let in while those inside refused until they opened the door with a giggle.

A few of the young children in the group ran around the porch speaking in English, but they were sternly herded back into the group by their mothers.

"This is very important for them. How else will they learn our traditions?" said Quizhpi, who has two children.

Once inside, Fuentes quickly took off his costume and retreated to the back of the room.

Fuentes was quiet while the adults mingled. But when asked if he had a good time, Fuentes nodded. "It's important to keep in touch with your culture, so I don't mind doing it," he said.

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