Latinos keep Three Kings Day traditions alive in New York

The Three Kings Day Parade makes its way through the streets of East Harlem last year.

On Friday, most in the Spanish speaking world marks Three Kings Day, an ancient celebration that commemorates the visit of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

Each country in Latin America has its particular customs, many of which have been transported — and somewhat adapted — to Latino homes across New York. Dominican and Puerto Rican children leave dry grass for the camels under their beds; in Argentina and Mexico, they leave their shoes — with grass or a letter — outside their rooms or under the tree. But everywhere, the kids — at least the well-behaved ones — wake up to gifts from the Magi.

A tradition that is common in many countries is eating La Rosca de Reyes, a round sweet bread baked with dried or candied fruits and a little figurine of a baby Jesus inside. The rosca is available in many Latino bakeries in the city during this time of the year.

Viva asked some Latinos their thoughts on the holiday and how they mark it:

MEXICO
María Diaz, 38, who has a 13 year-old son and a 19 year-old daughter, works cleaning a store.
“We meet at a house in the Bronx with my brother and my sister-in-law, who have four young children, and we eat tamales or posole. We also eat taquitos with cheese. We buy the Rosca de Reyes in the Mexican bakery.”

PUERTO RICO
Janette Colón, 48, born in the South Bronx
“My parents are from Puerto Rico. My mom told me that she celebrated the day when she lived there as a child. She lived in the countryside, and they were very poor but they put hay and water for the camels and they left a hand-knitted dollas a gift. As we are very Americanized, we don’t celebrate here, but I would like to go to the Three Kings Day Parade at
El Museo del Barrio.”

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Milagros Morisette, 50, grew up in La Vega
“On the fifth day, they left us gifts under the pillow or on the bed when we slept. Depending on what they could afford to give us. … We are 10 siblings. When we woke up in the morning, we believed the Wise Men had come and left us presents, and when there weren’t our parents would say that the camels couldn’t cross the river near the house and couldn’t go uphill. But we were happier than if we had had all the gifts in the world.”

ECUADOR
Fátima Zea, 55, works in a retail store
“Here in the Bronx, I meet with my close relatives and we drink chocolate with the Rosca de Reyes.”

ARGENTINA
Rita Lombardi, psychologist, has two grownup daughters and two grandchildren.
“We put the grass and the water for the camels near a door or a window left open so the Three Kings can enter. We all leave our shoes, the adults and the children. I put my shoes just in case. It’s a great celebration. I remember that when I was a child in Buenos Aires, one of the Kings wrote me a letter apologizing that he couldn’t get the doll I wanted and left me a different present instead. I must have been 5 years old.”

MEXICO
Alma López, 37, from Puebla, mother of a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old
“We eat la Rosca and drink atole, a hot beverage made out of milk, flavors, sugar and cornflour. On the night of Jan. 5, we put a letter [that the children write] to the Three Kings inside a shoe under the Christmas tree. The Magi leave them gifts in the shoe. The next day, the letter isn’t there anymore, and instead there is a reply praising the kids if they were good or scolding them if they need to improve their behavior.”

Three Kings Parade rules on Friday

Various events on Friday celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men, but the main one is the 35th annual Three Kings Day Parade along the streets of East Harlem. The procession starts at 10:30 a.m. at 106th St. and Madison Ave. and features community leaders dressed as kings. The parade also includes live camels and sheep. Musician Johnny Colón and authors Nicholasa Mohr and Esmeralda Santiago will don the Magi costumes this year.

wegsman@optonline.net