South Florida’s best known Christmas traditions involve food. La caja china. Hallacas. But one of the richest customs involves street theater – plus a really cool donkey named Paco – and it reflects the increasingly important role Mexicans play in this region today.
Las posadas are the heart of the Mexican Navidad celebration. Starting December 16, crowds singing carols known as villancicos follow couples dressed as the biblical Mary and Joseph in nightly processions.
In Spanish, posada means an inn, and las posadas recreate Mary’s search for a place to give birth to Jesus. During one procession last week through downtown Homestead, home to Miami-Dade County’s largest Mexican community, Mary and Paco got turned away from shops and restaurants until they came to a locked courtyard on Krome Avenue.
As the singers begged for Mary’s entry, iron gate latches were opened and she was ushered in. The crowd feasted on tamales and churros while kids knocked open a star-shaped piñata.
For Mexican Roman Catholics, las posadas are a metaphor for letting the Christmas spirit of compassion into people’s hearts. But they could also be an allegory of immigration – the hard odyssey undertaken by so many Mexican workers who arrive here to plant and harvest the fields of South Dade.
“These traditions are really the umbilical cord of our community,” says Maria Garza, president of the Mexican-American Council in Homestead.
But in South Florida these days you can find those traditions beyond the Redlands. They’ve taken root from Doral to Delray Beach – and from the age-old, like the December 12 Virgin of Guadalupe masses at the Holy Rosary-St. Richard Catholic church in Palmetto Bay, to the contemporary, including the Latin Grammy award-winning popularity here of the Mexican pop duo Jesse y Joy.
That’s because the region's Mexican population is growing as never before: 40 percent in Miami-Dade County the past decade, to more than 60,000. In Florida the number is close to 700,000.
The Mexican-American Council just won a $60,000 Knight Foundation grant to create a mariachi music academy. It’s the sort of school usually seen only in the largest of Mexican communities like those in San Antonio or Los Angeles.
“This is our statement,” says Garza. “This is our way for us to say we’ve been here since the ‘40s, and we’re not going anywhere.”
That Mexican advance is part of a non-Cuban surge among Florida Latinos. And Garza says it’s more diverse than Floridians realize.
“Often people here think of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans only as agricultural workers,” says Garza. “We have teachers, we have scientists, business owners.”
And executives like Vicente Echeveste, a vice president here for Visa.
“I think the last 15 years Miami has been discovered by more Mexicans,” says Echeveste, who emigrated from central Mexico to Palmetto Bay with his family in 2001.
One magnet, besides a similar climate and Latin American ambience, is increased trade between Miami and Mexico – and a realization inside Mexico’s booming business sector that Miami is a key bridge to the rest of the western hemisphere.
But another, says Echeveste’s wife, Tony Briseño, is “the lack of security in Mexico.”
More Mexicans are leaving the criminal violence that has rocked their country the last 15 years. And many find Miami a more appealing – and closer – U.S. destination than California or Texas is.
“From Mexico City to Miami,” Echaveste notes, “it’s a shorter flight than to San Diego.”
Culturally, Mexico can still be a long way from Miami’s mostly Cuban and Caribbean mix. The Cuban crooner Beny Moré once sang that Mexicans are pretty good mambo dancers. But Briseño says, “No matter how large our numbers are, Mexicans traditionally tend to express ourselves more quietly than our Caribbean neighbors.”
Even so, politically she and many Florida Mexicans say that needs to change.
Immigration reform, for example, has never been a big issue in Florida, since Cubans enjoy immigration privileges because of the Castro dictatorship. Mexicans do not – and Echeveste as a result believes their collective voice should be stronger here.
“We are not actively seeking to leverage our presence or our numbers still in Florida,” he laments.
That’s changing, though, as more Mexican-Americans like Echeveste get U.S. citizenship and vote.
“Usually when people think Miami [politics] they think Cuban,” says Hector Sanchez, 19, who arrived here from Toluca, Mexico, as a boy and voted for the first time here in November in Kendall. “But that seems to be not the case anymore.”
And like Cubans and Venezuelans, Mexicans are now weighing in on issues back home – evidenced by a recent mass protest at the new Mexican consulate in Miami against official corruption and violence in Mexico.
But this week the sound of Mexico is las posadas – a peaceful reminder that Mexicans are here in South Florida to stay.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.