THE HISTORY OF U.S. LATINOS
MY 2001 LETTER TO THE REYES MAGOS OF MY YOUTH
Dear Three Wise Men,
Perhaps I'm too old to be writing you a letter. But time has not withered the affection I felt for you as a child.
It's been some 40 years since you snuck gifts under my bed on every Feast of the Epiphany during my childhood in Cuba. But I still think you gave me some of the best times of my life.
Nowadays, I welcome your Jan. 6 visits to Lilia, my 7-year-old daughter. She is expecting you tomorrow and, beware, her wish list is as long as mine was, back in the 1950s. You were very generous back then, and now I try to pass on your tradition and generosity to my child.
But it hasn't been easy. Santa Claus has been overpowering.
Most U.S. Latinos have adopted the jolly old Saint Nicholas from the North and his Dec. 25 visits – and so have I. He was very generous to Lilia this year. At my home, we love Santa.
But that doesn't mean we are going to forget you, dear Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
Unfortunately, that's what's happening in the homes of many U.S. Latinos. They know that you are the same Three Kings who brought gifts to the Child Jesus in Bethlehem. But you just sit there in their decorative manger. It saddens me to tell you, but to many people who once believed in you, you are merely figurines now.
That's the reason for this letter. Forty years later, I have a new wish list for you:
I wish you would not abandon us – and us you – when we move to North America. I wish you would instill in all Latino parents the need to keep your tradition alive, regardless of where we may reside or who else may also be bringing us presents.
Sometimes Santa may not be able to afford to be very merry, but surely he can always split his generosity with you, dear Three Wise Men. Leaving a gift or two for you to deliver on Jan. 6, regardless of how small or inexpensive, cannot be so hard.
Some efforts are made by Latino community organizations to keep your tradition alive. In Hispanic neighborhoods throughout this country, there will many Three Kings celebrations this weekend.
But before we go to bed tonight, many of us will forget to leave grass and water for your camels. Perhaps that's the reason why you've stopped coming by many of our homes.
And perhaps the time has come to do something about that, dear Three Wise Men. While Santa is often over-commercialized, you could use a little more commercialization.
I wish you would send your stand-ins, as Santa does with his, to the malls where Latinos shop, as you do in Latin America. I wish toy retailers would realize what an opportunity they are missing by not promoting Three Kings sales.
At the toy stores this week, some Latino parents say they would rather keep your visits quiet, so they can take advantage of the after-Christmas sales. Indeed, when I toured the toy stores in Hudson County's Bergenline Avenue a few years ago, many Korean shopkeepers said they couldn't understand why so many Latinos were buying toys after Christmas had passed.
I saw similar ignorance this week on the Internet, where the online toy retailers had major clearance sales, but made no mention of Three Kings Day.
Nevertheless, in the U.S. Latino community, with its rapidly growing purchasing power, dear Three Wise Men, you are a gold mine waiting to be discovered.
They say commercialization dilutes the true meaning of the Christmas season. But ironically, in your case, lack of commercialization threatens the survival of one of our most precious traditions.
Even in Latin America, where Santa is increasingly popular because of U.S. commercial influence, some feel threatened by what they see as your gradual demise. You can see it on a Latin American Web site, titled "Papa Noel impostor," where viewers are encouraged to reject the "cultural colonialism" they say Santa represents.
"Papa Noel is a foreign cultural figure which the media is trying to impose on us to substitute and eliminate Hispanic cultural figures like The Three Wise Men," the Web site states while encouraging readers to write similar distorted diatribe.
They, too, need help, dear Three Wise Men. I wish you would tell them that you do not feel threatened by our love for Santa, that one holiday doesn't need to diminish the sanctity of the other, that we can embrace both, as we do in my home, in spite of the odds.
P.S.: I forgive you for not bringing me that Superman outfit I wanted when I was a kid. Now I recognize that there were none available in Cuba at that time – and I'm satisfied with playing the role of Clark Kent.
This column was first published by The Record, Jan. 5, 2001