Party celebrates holiday, heritage

Magi: A Latino outreach center in Fells Point organizes a Three Kings Day event for children.

January 11, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by 100 children tearing into presents, Esperanza Cardenas, 6, sat primly yesterday on a metal chair, her arms clutching a large box wrapped in red foil. She shook the box occasionally, stuck her small hands beneath the foil and waited.

At the Education-Based Latino Outreach center in Fells Point yesterday, the staff abandoned the regular Saturday morning schedule and indulged in holiday fun. They observed the Feast of Three Kings with gifts to the children, who spend hours in mentor programs. The holiday, widely celebrated in Latin America, is also known as Epiphany and is officially celebrated on Jan. 6. It honors the Magi, three biblical wise men who followed a star to Bethlehem and laid gifts before the Christ child.

The outreach center has organized the celebration for several years with help from corporate sponsors, who contributed about $4,000 this year.

"Basically, we lose this culture when we come here," said Jose O. Ruiz, founder of Education-Based Latino Outreach and Mayor Martin O'Malley's Hispanic liaison. "With this event, our kids celebrate both holidays."

Harold Santana, 9, echoed the sentiment. "I get two Christmases. It is a really good deal."

The children, who ranged in age from babies to teens, gathered in front of a tree-decorated stage in the center on South Ann Street. While singing carols in Spanish and English, many kept their eyes on the doorway, waiting to see the kings enter.

After the group's rendition of "Feliz Navidad," three men costumed in glittery crowns, long, colorful robes and flowing beards took their seats on a makeshift throne. They called each child by name to the stage. Many children quickly recognized and laughed at Miguel Vicente, the center's volunteer coordinator, in his royal raiment.

"I am usually on the other side getting gifts, so this was a big change and a lot of fun for me," said Vicente.

Esperanza was the first child to receive a gift and nearly the last to open one. The noise level escalated as children ripped away paper to find talking trucks, games and craft kits, dolls, sports gear and cuddly stuffed animals. Finally, at the urging of her older brothers, the little girl with long brown hair delicately removed the wrappings and smiled. Then, she paraded around the room showing off her Diva Starz doll, its car and myriad other accessories.

"The kings gave me this," she said repeatedly.

For children of Hispanic heritage, the tradition of Christmas gifts extends beyond Dec. 25 to the Feast of Three Kings.

"This day was the big event, not Christmas," said Edgar Devarie, president of the Latin American Motorcycle Association of Baltimore, a group that helped sponsor the event. "We cannot lose a tradition that has been with us forever."

Christian Cardenas, Esperanza's 11-year-old brother, said, "I like both Christmases but this one I get to see all my friends and play around here." He had two gifts - "scientific stuff and a rescue hero."

Brother Eric Cardenas, 9, received a truck, a car and a bubble pen. He also had a few impromptu lessons on the cuatro, a stringed instrument similar to a guitar, from Guillermo Brown, who teaches English classes at the center and Spanish at the Institute of Notre Dame.

"Hit it lightly and you are playing," Brown said to Eric.

Brown brought several student volunteers with him, and many planned to return.

"I come on the craziest day of the year here," said Cate Kramer, 17, a senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School. "I will be back to help out."

Before the celebrants left, the center passed out bags filled with candy, gum and bottles of bubbles. Many children left sucking on lollipops. Bubbles were floating throughout the building. Esperanza was last seen clutching her doll and asking if its barrettes might work in her hair.

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