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The Times-Picayune

Students Get A Taste Of Latin Christmas

By Cindy Gelpi

December 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved. 

While most Americans sit down to a traditional feast of turkey or ham on Christmas Day, those with Latin American ancestry might serve up something spicier.

"The traditional food of Mexico during Christmas is hot tamales," Jose De La Rosa recently told students in the Spanish Club at Carolyn Park Middle School in Slidell.

De La Rosa, grandfather of two students in the Spanish Club, along with Alba Montoya, a native of Honduras, and Carmen Perez of Puerto Rico were the guest speakers at the club's recent Christmas celebration. The speakers taught students the different holiday traditions celebrated in Latin American countries and brought special holiday foods for the students to sample.

Students were treated to hot tamales; "tres leche," a cake soaked in condensed milk, evaporated milk and half and half; and "bunuelos," pastries similar to creme puffs.

While some were taken aback by the spicy tamales made by De La Rosa, others took the food in stride.

"I'm used to them being even hotter than this because my mom is from Mexico," fifth-grader Malcolm Young, 10, said.

While food is an important part of the holiday traditions, Montoya said the primary focus of Christmas in Honduras is the birth of Christ.

"We celebrate about Jesus," she told the students, "That's the main thing." And a Christmas tree without a nativity scene is just not a Christmas tree, she said.

De La Rosa said in Mexico the focus is the same and children do not wait for Santa Claus as children in the United States do. Children participate in posadas, which are re-enactments of Mary and Joseph looking for lodging before the birth of Christ. In the posada, people follow two children dressed as Mary and Joseph in a procession down the street, as the children stop at designated homes to ask for shelter in song. At the end of the procession, the people are invited into one home for a party.

Janice Montoya, 12, whose mother spoke at the celebration, said she has participated in posadas and has celebrated Christmas in Honduras several times. "We used to go there every other Christmas," she said.

Perez told students about the tradition in Puerto Rico where children celebrate Jan. 6, known as "Tres Reyes Magos" or King's Day.

"This is a very special tradition," she said. Children fill a box with grass and put it at the foot of their bed for the three kings to feed their hungry camels, she said. In the morning, the children receive gifts, toys and clothes in exchange, she said.

Perez and volunteer parent Claire Torrey are co-sponsors of Carolyn Park's Spanish Club. The club has more than 40 members who meet once a week to learn conversational Spanish.

"The kids want to be here," Torrey said. "They are very enthusiastic. It's such a great way to teach."

In addition to sampling foods and learning customs in other countries, the students had fun last Thursday swatting at a pinata filled with candy, which is also a common fixture at celebrations in Latin American countries. Montoya said the celebrations in her family now in the United States include a mixture of both cultures.

"We are still keeping our traditions from our country and mixing it with the traditions of the U.S.," she said.

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