No room at the inn: Mexican Posada tradition inspires US migrants

Why We Wrote This

International traditions are commonly adapted to new environments via migration and globalization. In California, the ritual of La Posada, which reenacts Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter, has taken on new meaning in a time of increased of anti-migrant rhetoric.

Walt Johnston
The 25th annual La Posada Sin Fronteras took place Dec. 15 at Border Field State Park in San Diego. Musicians for La Posada Sin Fronteras process along the trail from the park entrance to the border fence.

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There’s a long history in Mexico and many Latin American countries of hosting Posadas around Christmastime. The nine-night ritual reenacts the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay. It’s increasingly popular in some US cities and towns as well, particularly in places with large Latino populations. “Family is at the core of Mexican culture,” says Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. “In the ritual of La Posada, people get to relive the story of the Holy Family within the context of their own lives.” In Madera, just north of Fresno, Calif., this year’s community celebration was not only a way to remember family and life south of the border, but an opportunity to draw attention to daily realities for migrants – farmworkers, border-crossers, and asylum-seekers. For Porfirio Hernández, an indigenous Triqui leader from Oaxaca, Mexico, now living in Madera, the Posada is deeply personal. “I believe that Joseph and Mary were also migrants,” he says, standing in front of a manger fashioned from palm fronds and dried grass.

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. 

But the Triquis and other Latinos around the country find spiritual refuge and rejuvenation in the joy of La Posada – the Spanish word for “inn” or “shelter.” Part religion, part culinary extravaganza, the celebration originated in colonial Mexico and has since become a beloved Latino Catholic folk tradition ­re-creating the story of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging on their journey to Bethlehem. It continues to flourish in cities and towns throughout Mexico – and increasingly in the United States.

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.

And the pain of being permanently separated from their loved ones in Mexico is a constant presence. Fiestas honoring hometown saints and rituals like Dia de los Muertos and La Posada help assuage the loneliness by knitting families and community together.

“Family is at the core of Mexican culture,” says Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. “In the ritual of La Posada, people get to relive the story of the Holy Family within the context of their own lives.”

‘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.

As a child in Mexico, Ana María Díaz, who hosted an elaborate Posada here last weekend, remembers the extra check that her father, a post office worker in Guanajuato, would receive every December. “He spent it to invite everyone to the Posada,” she recalls. “He’d buy tamales, buñuelos [fritters], oranges, peanuts, candy, sugar cane,” she says. “Without even thinking, I carry on that tradition.”

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?’

No two Posadas are exactly alike: At the Triqui event, Rosa Hernández, an accomplished Oaxacan chef, stood watch over a steaming pot of ponche, a thick hot punch filled with bobbing fruit and a stalk of sugar cane, to be savored later around a bonfire. Another vat brimmed with pozole cooked with yerba santa, a Mexican herb.

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.

The most high-profile of these is the annual binational Posada sin Fronteras – without borders – typically held on both sides of the US-Mexican border fence in San Ysidro and Tijuana, with a recitation of the names of people known to have died while crossing that year. This month, for the first time in its 25-year history, participants on the US side were confined to a new “special events” area away from the fence because of “security concerns,” says Rosemary Johnston, a longtime organizer.

At the Triqui Posada, the social justice lyrics were supplied by Sister Ana Rosa Guzmán, who ministers to migrants for the Diocese of Fresno. After prayers beneath the plastic tent, including one for migrants, the party started; the boiling hot ponche and pozole were wheeled carefully on a dolly across a bumpy dirt field.

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 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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