os pido posada ...
(In the name of heaven, we are asking shelter ... )
On a damp, misty Saturday evening in December, a group of 30 men, women and children stand singing at the mouth of a gated garden on Gilbert Street in Durham. The spirits of the predominantly Latino group aren't dampened by the weather as they launch jubilant verses at an equal number of "gatekeepers" on the other side of the black iron bars. The outsiders have come to the garden seeking posada, or shelter.
After briefly contemplating their request, the unimpressed gatekeepers refuse to open the door and melodically inform the outsiders to keep walking.
Aquí no es mesón
yo no puedo abrir, no sea algún tunante
(This is not an inn, keep going, we can't open up, we don't want any vagabonds here.)
Undeterred, the outsiders continue to plead their case in song. The verses fly back and forth, increasing in intensity, until the insiders finally acquiesce. The gates fly open and everyone bursts into a song of welcome and celebration as the two groups become one.
Entren santos peregrinos,
reciban este rincón
(Enter saintly pilgrims, welcome to these quarters)
A small child bearing a model Nativity scene steps forward and leads a candlelight procession down a winding pathway to a covered brick deck. Once there, the fiesta begins as laughter, guitar rhythms and the scent of hot tamales invade the air.
Welcome to the second annual "Fiesta de la Posada," a Latino Christmas celebration commemorating Joseph and Mary's search for shelter en route to Bethlehem. La Posada is celebrated in communities around the world, although they can differ in approach. According to Mexican tradition, nine posadas should be held Dec. 16 through 24 to symbolize the months of Mary's pregnancy. This tradition also places the celebrations in neighborhoods, so the peregrinos, or pilgrims, can ask for shelter at the doors of houses in the community. Each night, a candlelight procession goes to a prearranged home requesting shelter for the holy family. After the ritual verses are sung and responded to, the entire group is allowed into that house. A party ensues, and the visitors spend the night. By the time the group--which increases in size each night with the addition of families that previously provided shelter--makes its way to the final house on Christmas Eve, participants enjoy the biggest party of all. Accordingly, the final posada is usually held in the largest home in the community.
Though Dec. 16 is commonly accepted as the date of the first Posada, the total number of celebrations can run from one to nine depending on who is organizing the event. This year, organizers of the Durham posadas--Durham-based APIC (Parents Association for Cultural Exchange), El Centro Hispano and SEEDS (Southeastern Efforts for Developing Sustainable Spaces)--have settled on four. The event is open to the general public, both in Mexico and here in Durham.
"In addition to its religious significance, this is the continuance of a tradition that, in this country, is in serious danger of being lost," says Henry Armijo. A SEEDS member and ESL (English as a Second Language) coordinator for the Orange County Department of Human Rights and Relations, Armijo feels it is important to maintain the celebrations here so that recent immigrants "can still be a part of a tradition recognized in their home countries. Even though you may be separated from your native land and family, through the Posada, we can provide you a sense of home and community."
"It's mostly for them," continues Armijo, as he points toward an animated group of 20 children scrambling for position under a large piñata. "It provides them with a bit of their culture they may not otherwise know about."
Some point out how the celebrations can also serve as an effective cross-cultural networking tool. Although Mexico is best known for its Posadas, Eduardo Perez, a member of APIC and an organizer of the event, notes that "other countries like Puerto Rico and Colombia have similar celebrations under different names," and that these local events can serve as a bridge between these cultures here in America. "It's a good way for us to come together and work to help each other," Perez concludes.
"One of the stated goals of the event is to bring folks together," Armijo agrees. "We understand each other much better when we know what our various cultures are about."
"If you come to a new country and leave all of your traditions behind you, you have nothing," says Sarah Shaw, an ESL teacher at Eastway Elementary School in Durham. Shaw lived in Mexico for four years during the 1980s. "Kids, especially, need to be aware of their culture and what they bring to our collective culture here in America."
But there is also a larger message that Henry Armijo hopes is not lost. "A lot of these folks are pilgrims," adds Armijo, as the music dies down and the party wraps up. "They are looking for the same things that José and Maria were--a safe place where they can be with families and communities that care for them."
Three additional Posada celebrations will occur on Dec. 20, 21 and 23 in Durham. All are open to the public. For location and further info, contact Henry Armijo/SEEDS at 683-1197, or Eduardo Perez at 560-3910.