Nativity Scenes Blend Tradition and Devotion

Every Christmas, Emma Suquett has brought out the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus and assembled them with loving care in a manger as the centerpiece of her family’s nacimiento (Nativity scene).

But this year, instead of having the nacimiento in her East Los Angeles living room, Suquett has installed the creche in the Southwest Museum in Highland Park for an exhibition that captures both the form and spirit of the nacimiento tradition.

The display is entitled “More Than a Tradition: Mexican-American Nacimientos in Los Angeles,” and will be on view through Feb. 2.

For Suquett, 63, the mother of nine, the rituals associated with setting up a nacimiento are “not only a tradition but a devotion.”


Suquett, a member of Assumption Catholic Church parish, said: “The nacimiento is very beautiful because, to me, the meaning of Christmas is the birth of el Nino Jesus. The Christmas season gives us a chance to renew our lives, our friendships and our family. No matter what has happened during the year, those days are very special for all the family.”

The Nativity scene tradition is common in many Christian homes around the world. St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 13th Century, is often credited with popularizing the Nativity, but the practice may have originated earlier than that, according to Michael Heisley, the Southwest Museum’s curator of folklore and director of the exhibition.

“The custom of building elaborate nacimientos . . . has been recorded by travelers and scholars since the 17th Century throughout Mexico and the Southwest,” Mary MacGregor-Villarreal, a Southwest Museum researcher, wrote in a catalogue for the exhibit.

Not all Mexican-American Catholics set up a nacimiento, but for those who do, it holds special significance. For them, MacGregor-Villarreal, writes: “The nacimiento . . . is more than an artistic creation, a seasonal decoration, or a mere reminder of the spiritual meaning of Christmas. It is, in fact, the focal point of the family’s Christmas activities, both religious and social, in the home.”


Nacimientos in contemporary times often share the living room with a Christmas tree, as in Suquett’s home, or even sit among the holiday presents under the tree. In Mexican-American homes, they often have elements of “popular culture (such as Santa Claus), mixed with religious figures, and figures of Mexican identity,” Heisley said.

The seven nacimientos in the exhibit, which vary in size and composition, were installed by the people who own them and normally set them up in their homes. The participants--Salud Cortez, Maria Enriquez, Ofelia Esparza, Silvia Marcial, Consuelo Sedano de Sousa and Jose Luis Sedano, Suquett, and Jesse and Josephine Saucedo--were selected by Heisley, MacGregor-Villarreal and researcher Mary Helen de la Pena.

Some nacimientos that are not included in the exhibition are documented in the catalogue. Maria Chavez, for example, uses her entire living room to set up hers, with its three sets of Reyes Magos (the Three Kings) journeying to Bethlehem. It also includes a rancho Mexicano with chickens in the yard and a woman making tortillas.

The Saucedos are participating in the exhibit with a section of their nacimiento, which they have set up permanently in their basement.


Another part of the exhibition records, with text and photographs, the cycle of traditional Latino Christmas events, such as las posadas, which re-enact the search for lodging by Joseph and Mary. Aurelio Jose Barrera, a Los Angeles Times staff member, took the photographs as an independent project for the museum.

Suquett, whose husband is a grandson of a French soldier who remained in Mexico after the end of French rule there, said she first became involved with the nacimiento tradition when she was 8 years old in Eagle Pass, Tex. “My godmother gave me a figure of the Baby Jesus and my mother showed me how to set up the nacimiento, " she recalled.

When Suquett came to Los Angeles, she brought some nacimiento figures with her and resumed the custom that had long been established here.