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Las Posadas tradition returns to Homestead as a community rises from the pandemic

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Al Diaz
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Miami Herald
Mari Marquez and Marshall Soto play Mary and Joseph during the traditional Posada procession in Homestead in December 2015.

The traditional Christmas procession festival, cancelled last year by COVID-19, is an expression of Mexican and Latino identity — and, lately, an immigration statement.

Pass by one of the Mexican-American Council's activity centers in Homestead right now and you're likely to hear the sounds of a community emerging from the pandemic.

Namely, two dozen angelic, mostly Mexican-American kids rehearsing Christmas songs like “Burrito de Belén,” "The Little Donkey of Bethlehem," which they’ll perform during the nine days of Las Posadas celebrations that start this week — a tradition returning to Homestead after COVID-19 shut it down last year.

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The Posadas festival is held Dec. 16 to Christmas Eve; in Homestead the main procession is this Saturday. Posada means “an inn” in Spanish, and the central ritual is large, nightly processions led by people portraying Mary and Joseph seeking a place where Mary can give birth to Jesus.

“The Posadas bring the very best of who we are,” said Edward Garza, who heads the the nonprofit Mexican-American Council (MAC) in Homestead, which runs the Posadas events.

READ MORE: Mexican Miami: South Florida's Surging Immigrant Group Shines at Christmas

As he beams at the children singing and playing violins, guitarrones and trumpets inside the Homestead-Miami Mariachi Music Conservatory, Garza reminds me the Posadas is a key expression of Mexican identity — so much so that in Homestead, the return of Las Posadas is like a culture stepping out again.

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Tim Padgett/WLRN.org
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Children rehearsing for upcoming Posadas celebrations at the Homestead-Miami Mariachi Music Conservatory last week.

“Having the opportunity to come together again as family, as community, as a culture is such a special moment," said Garza, "especially with the pandemic and all those that we’ve lost — all the time that we’ve lost together.”

The Latino community lost a lot to COVID-19. Latinos, who make up a quarter of the state's population, have suffered a disproportionate 40% of the state's pandemic cases and about the same share of deaths when weighted for areas where there have been big outbreaks.

In Homestead, community leaders say Mexican migrant farmworker families — part of what the federal government called "essential" labor during the pandemic — were hit hard.

“The father of one of the young ladies in our mariachi academy was one of the first to succumb to COVID here," said Garza's mother, Maria Garza, who co-founded the MAC. "She’s only 12 years old."

The Posadas bring the best of who we are. To be able to do this again as family, community, a culture is special after the pandemic and all those we’ve lost – all the time we’ve lost together.
Edward Garza

A big factor in the decision to safely go ahead with the Posadas in Homestead was that it takes place outside. But there are other motivations — including the fact that in recent years Las Posadas, and its depiction of what is essentially a migrant family seeking shelter, has become a poignant statement about immigration as well as Christmas.

“Families that have recently immigrated to the United States, and join us for the Posadas, they tell me for them it meant just that, the inclusivity of this country," said Maria Garza, who was a migrant farmworker when she arrived in Homestead from Mexico in 1971.

"They were searching for a safer place for their families, and the Posadas symbolizes Mary and Joseph [being] able to do that. We are honoring the same thing.”

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Al Diaz/Miami Herald
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Children from Homestead's Mariachi Music Conservatory singing during Posadas celebrations in 2015.

The MAC's program manager, Marilu Villa, says that's a big reason local high school students — usually first-generation Mexican-Americans like her who were born here to Mexican migrant parents — consider it "a great honor to say they played Mary or Joseph in the Posadas — to represent their parents and our beliefs that way."

In downtown Homestead last week, as Edward Garza and his MAC staff walked the Posadas procession route, they thanked business owners along the way, including award-winning Puerto Rican restaurateur Jodrick Ujaque, for supporting the tradition’s revival.

A DONKEY NAMED JACK

“Economically, this event shows that people are coming out again," said Emma Hernandez, a Mexican-American and Ujaque's landlady in Homestead.

Her 85-year-old mother Estefana was a migrant worker who later owned one of Homestead’s most popular restaurants, El Toro Taco, before it closed during the pandemic. But what means more to Hernandez, she said, is that the Homestead Posadas "is something my mother started with the MAC" 24 years ago.

"It was very emotional when she started the tradition," Hernandez said, choking back years, "and I … and I just feel very proud of her.”

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Tim Padgett/WLRN.org
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Mexican-American Council CEO Edward Garza (left) and Homestead business owner Emma Hernandez talk during preparations last week for Las Posadas.

The Homestead Posadas procession Saturday evening will end at the commercial plaza Hernandez’s family still owns. There, Mary and Joseph will be welcomed in to a fiesta of food, music and piñatas.

So will the donkey Mary rides. The Council recently found out the donkey from the nearby Little Farm petting zoo they’ve always used — named Jerry — retired during the pandemic. They had to go far north, to Lin’s Pony Rental in Miami Gardens, to find his replacement — named Jack.

Jack will of course be serenaded by the kids with that Latin American Christmas carol “Burrito de Belén." At the Council’s Mariachi Music Conservatory, they’re fine-tuning that performance, which they’ll also give at Pinecrest Gardens next Monday night.

"When they decided to hold Las Posadas again, we were ready immediately because the musical infrastructure was here," said Judith Mora Arriaga, a co-director of the mariachi conservatory, which has become a widely celebrated academy since its founding in 2015 with a Knight Foundation grant.

Along the way in the coming days, they and Homestead hope to leave the pandemic behind. At least for Christmas.

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The Homestead Posadas procession will begin downtown, at La Michoacana, 344 Washington Ave., at 6 pm on Saturday, Dec. 18.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.