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Celebrating Holidays And Hispanic Pride… Latin Night In Saddam's Palace, Courtesy Of The US Army

Celebrating Holidays And Hispanic Pride


December 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The New York Times Co. All rights reserved.

HISPANIC residents of Westchester will reach for their roots this holiday season at cultural and religious celebrations around the county.

Over the years, such events have evolved from small household observances to larger gatherings organized by groups interested in the Hispanic influence.

The trend reflects a demographic reality: In 2000, Hispanic residents accounted for 16 percent of the Westchester population, up from 10 percent in 1990, according to Martha Lopez-Hanratty, the program administrator of the Westchester County Office of Hispanic Affairs.

The celebrations may also indicate a flowering of Latino pride, said Milagros Lecuona, director of La Casa de la Cultura, a White Plains nonprofit group that she founded in 1999 to nourish Hispanic culture.

''Hispanics used to try and hide their accents so we wouldn't sound like strangers, and it would be easier to get jobs,'' she said. ''Now we're in a different stage. We're proud of where we come from. We're here to be part of this community, to share our culture, to learn from other cultures, and to learn from our ancestors.''

In 1984, when Aurelia Fernandez, a folk artist, emigrated from Spain to Yonkers, she organized family and friends to perform in traditional Mexican productions including Pastorelas y Posadas, a program of traditional Christmas songs and a religious play that date from the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Now the children of the original performers are part of the group, called Telpochcalli (house of youth), so they can learn Mexican customs that they probably couldn't pick up any other way. For her efforts, Ms. Fernandez was named Distinguished Tradition Bearer by the Westchester Arts Council in 1999.

In Latin America, the Posadas depict the Virgin Mary's pregnancy and her wanderings with Joseph in search of a place for baby Jesus to be born. For nine days, singers go from house to house and eventually are invited inside to join the party and smash pinatas, but at Ms. Fernandez's event the songs were going to be sung in the church. The second part of her celebration, the Pastorelas, which is less often performed, tells how shepherds learned of the birth of Jesus, headed for Bethlehem, were attacked by the devil, and ultimately made their way to the manger.

A week before the showtime that was scheduled yesterday at 7 p.m. at the South Presbyterian Church in Yonkers, Ms. Fernandez, who works as a cook in the Pearls Hawthorne School in Yonkers, was creating pinatas for the Posadas and rehearsing the Pastorelas performers, mostly children playing the part of shepherds.

''I want the younger children to know they have a part in this culture, and responsibilities.'' she said.

Today at 2 p.m., Esmeralda Santiago, a Katonah writer who spent her childhood in Puerto Rico, is scheduled to read parts of her anthology of Latin Christmases past, ''Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories'' ( Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow. Eddie Rosa and his group, Renacer Trovero, will perform traditional Puerto Rican music and will lead the audience in aguinaldos, a Latin American version of Christmas carols. These songs evolved from an ancient form of poetry, the decimilla, which consists of a precise number of lines, syllables per line and rhyme scheme. As tradition dictates, Mr. Rosa will create the last two lines of an aguinaldo and then encourage the audience to devise the rest of the lyrics on the spot.

Latin refreshments based on recipes included in ''Las Christmas'' and cooked by Ms. Santiago's sister Delfa will be served. The center held a similar event last year -- its first geared to a Hispanic audience -- and filled the house with Spanish speakers.

''We were happily surprised that people came out of the woodwork,'' said Dare Thompson, executive director of the Hudson Valley Writers' Center.

Admission to this year's event is free, courtesy of grants from the village of Sleepy Hollow, the Westchester Arts Council, Verizon and Fuji Photofilm USA Inc. Information: (914)332-5953.

Another cultural celebration, Hispanic Traditions Through Popular Songs, will take place Dec. 27 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium at White Plains High School. The program, organized by La Casa de la Cultura, and supported by grants from the Westchester Arts Council, the New York State Council of the Arts, the Association of Hispanic Arts and the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, includes popular songs, dances and poetry from Latin countries as well as the United States.

Dancing will be performed by the Latino Coalition of White Plains High School, a group of high school students dedicated to exploring Hispanic traditions and issues. The flamenco dancer Josie Lariggia will also perform. Music will be provided by performers originally from Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Paraguay and the United States. Musaic, a White Plains-based choral group that specializes in music from all over the world, will sing songs in Spanish and English. The evening will conclude with a sing-along in English.

At a rehearsal this month, Ms. Lecuona, the organizer of the event, and several members of Musaic delivered lively renditions of songs from Spain, Puerto Rico and Cuba. ''I'm trying to show how different we all are, and how the same we are,'' said Ms. Lecuona, who emigrated from Cuba in 1987 and works as an architect with Peter Gisolfi Associates in Hastings-on-Hudson. Suggested admission to the event is $2. For information, call (914)428-5532.

Although Hispanic residents of Westchester mostly celebrate Christmas the American way, on Dec. 25, in some Latin American countries the main day for gift giving occurs on Jan. 6 on Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day), when the three kings, or wise men, are said to have arrived in Bethlehem and honored the baby Jesus with gifts.

It's a holiday that El Centro Hispano, a White Plains organization dedicated to helping Hispanic families, has consistently maintained. On Jan. 4 at 11:30 a.m. at St. Bernard's Church in White Plains, the center will stage a Three Kings Day celebration, just as it has every year since the center was founded in 1973.

In those days, about 50 to 100 children attended the event, which was held in El Centro Hispano's building next to St. Bernard's. Now it's part of the Spanish Mass at the church, and 350 to 400 children usually attend, said Isabel Villar, El Centro Hispano's director and guidance counselor at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Conn., who emigrated from Cuba 37 years ago. The children's countries of origin include Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Spain and Paraguay.

The Rev. Jose Vila Plana will tell the story of the Three Kings. Special guests dressed in exotic Three Kings costumes from Spain will go down the aisle. They usually give chocolates to the children, but this year the Three Kings will give stuffed animals to them to commemorate El Centro Hispano's 30th birthday. The kings will be played by Mayor Joseph M. Delfino of White Plains, the former Westchester County Judge Donald Silverman and, possibly, Andrew J. Spano, the Westchester County Executive.

Originally there were two reasons for El Centro Hispano's Three Kings Day celebration. One was poverty. ''We had kids who were not getting any presents, new immigrants to this country,'' said Ms. Villar. ''We decided to begin doing this so at least they could get some kind of present and at the same time keep Hispanic tradition and culture.''

The second reason was cultural continuity. ''We wanted the Hispanic community to keep the tradition of the three wise men,'' she said. Preserving Hispanic traditions like Three Kings Day isn't a rejection of American ways, Ms. Villar maintained. It's a supplement. ''You want to be able to move on to the new culture, but at the same time, you want to keep the values and traditions of your own,'' she said. ''That's why this country is unique. We're here, and we're here to stay.''

Admission to the Three Kings Day celebration at St. Bernard's Church is free. For information, call (914)289-0500.

Latin Night In Saddam's Palace, Courtesy Of The US Army

by Patrick Moser

December 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

The brass section strikes up a fiery tune, the congas set the beat and Sergeant Cesar Castro belts out a fast-paced salsa. It's Latino night in Saddam's palace, proudly brought to you by the US forces occupying Iraq.

Behind the band, a huge mural displays combat troops in action, a US flag and the words "God Bless Taskforce Ironhorse." Standard issue M-16 assault rifles are placed against the wall, and dress code is DCU - desert camouflage uniforms.

The musicians are all from the US army's 4th Infantry Division, deployed since April in Tikrit, a hotspot of anti-coalition activity and the hometown of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, 180 kilometers (110 miles) north of Baghdad.

Their inaugural gig a few days ago drew a small crowd of soldiers longing for the sounds of their native Puerto Rico, Mexico or Colombia after putting their lives on the line patroling the badlands of Iraq.

The mood was a little subdued, perhaps because of the lack of rum or tequila, but the band managed to gradually warm up the cold hall in one of the three dozen palaces that dot the landscape of the Ironhorse military base.

"The music connects us with our past, with the culture we miss out here," said Sergeant Juan Garcia, 37, who plays the congas in the band, called Fierro Caliente (hot iron.)

The 3,000 troops at the base include many Latinos, most born in Puerto Rico, Mexico or Colombia, but also in Peru, Ecuador or Venezuela.

While they are all US citizens or permanent residents, they say they miss the sounds and flavors of the lands of their forefathers.

Sergeant Crespin Lopez says that most of all he longs for the spicy food of Mexico, Garcia misses the fried plantains of Puerto Rico and Castro would give anything for a Colombian arepa, a type of cornmeal pancake.

But most of all, they all miss their loved ones.

Above his cot, Lopez has hung a flag of Honduras, the native land of the girl he plans to marry when he returns from Iraq.

While they long for the lands of their parents, the soldiers say they are proud to be fighting under the American banner.

"The colors I defend are the US colors," said Castro.

"The United States has given me everything I have, it has made me what I am," says Castro, who has lived in the United States for 23 years.

To the tune of a Mexican bolero, Castro introduces the band he says has come to "celebrate that we are here in Iraq defending freedom."

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