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Mexican Posada tradition inspires US migrants

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La Posada, a rich Mexican and Latin American Catholic tradition, took place after dusk in the humblest of settings on a recent evening here – a bright half-moon illuminated a plastic tent festooned with lights in a weatherworn mobile-home park.

Warmed by cinnamon-heavy Oaxacan coffee cooked on an open fire, the participants gathered for this much-anticipated nine-day Christmastime ritual were Triquis, an indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico, many of them fluent only in their native pre-Columbian language. They’d left their home some 2,500 miles away to become farmworkers in the fields of California’s Central Valley, picking blueberries, figs, table and raisin grapes, and asparagus, a particularly back-breaking crop. 

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At the celebration’s heart is a candlelit musical procession that moves from house to house (or the improvised equivalent). The lyrics unfold call-and-response style: Those singing outdoors represent Joseph requesting lodging for his pregnant wife, Mary, while those indoors sing the part of the suspicious innkeeper who closes the door because he believes the strangers might be thieves. Multiple stanzas later, a poor innkeeper takes them in.

This year, Posada season is particularly resonant, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests of farmworkers throughout the Central Valley, the tear-gassing of migrants at the border, and thousands of Central Americans living in limbo in Tijuana while they wait to ask for asylum in the US. The Triqui Posada’s lyrics were reframed to tell the story of unauthorized migrants crossing “la linea” – the border – at night, with the threat of quick deportation by border agents, as the curt response.

‘I CARRY ON THAT TRADITION’

For Porfirio Hernández, a Triqui leader, the Holy Family’s quest for an open door is deeply personal. “I believe that Joseph and Mary were also migrants,” Mr. Hernández says, standing in front of a manger fashioned from palm fronds and dried grass and reeds gathered along irrigation canals. In Madera, the population is more than 50 percent Latino, and ICE sightings are immediately posted on Facebook and other social media.

The city of about 65,000, just north of Fresno, has become a mecca of sorts not only for roughly 100 extended Triqui families but also for many of the state’s estimated 120,000 indigenous Mexican farmworkers. The Triquis come from one of the poorest regions in Mexico, with many first-generation parents speaking little to no Spanish, let alone English. Their linguistic isolation, along with barebones farmworker wages, and – for an unknown number – a lack of documentation, make them vulnerable to discriminatory practices, including wage theft, sexual abuse on the job, and bullying at school, says Marisa Lundin, director of the indigenous program at California Rural Legal Assistance Inc.

For Mrs. Díaz, who teaches catechism at the local church and has many Triqui students, it means a full-throttle cook-a-thon. Her kitchen is overtaken with an all-women tamale brigade in embroidered Oaxacan aprons who, the morning before this year’s Posada, somehow managed to prepare 275 tamales with three different fillings before 1 p.m.

Teresa Mendoza took the day off from the fields, her shirt splotched with tamale dough. “We’ll be together as a family,” she says. “It’s an important education for our kids.”

‘WHAT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY?’

Josephine Ramirez, executive vice president at The Music Center in Los Angeles, hosts a neighborhood Posada every year, cherishing it in part for the creativity it inspires in people who don’t consider themselves artists. “What I especially like,” she wrote in a 2013 essay published in ReVista, Harvard University’s review of Latin America, “is the way a Posada can happen in complete independence of any formal institution, and how it physically and metaphorically weaves a story through streets and in homes.”

The story’s teachings are both timely and universal. “It asks: ‘What is your responsibility when you answer the door?” says Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, director of the Labor Center at the University of California – Los Angeles, which researches labor and social movements. “It’s about fear of the other. And about welcoming strangers and being very careful to whom you deny help.” 

OUTLET FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE CONCERNS

In recent decades, Posadas have increasingly been adapted as advocacy tools for social justice causes, from homelessness (Imperial Beach California), to a celebration of recent laws legalizing street vending (the East Side Development Corporation in Los Angeles), to an annual Posada co-sponsored by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in Washington, D.C., that includes a moment of silence for migrants in front of the US Supreme Court.

Serenading the festivities was Banda San Martin Itunyoso, a lively brass band founded by Triqui youth. The trumpets, trombones, and oompahs from three sets of tubas were a fitting accompaniment to children swatting at a star-shaped piñata with crepe-paper streamers and suspended from a pecan tree.

The authentic “chilena” music is a way to strengthen the culture for a new generation and bring lightness to the lives of their hardworking parents and grandparents, 20-year-old tubist Leo Hernández says. 

“Posadas adapt to the needs of the community,” adds fellow musician Eugene L. Rodríguez, the executive director of Los Cenzontles, an acclaimed band and a nonprofit music and cultural academy based in San Francisco’s East Bay. “And we’re in a time of a lot of need.” 

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