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Posadas Take a Political Turn

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Times Staff Writer

Mary and Joseph’s futile search for a room at the inn in Bethlehem might, two millenniums later, seem an unlikely inspiration for skits about police brutality, class inequities and job discrimination in Santa Monica.

But that’s what happened on a chilly night this week at St. Anne Catholic Church, where a crowd of more than 100 gathered with candles and carols to give the timeless Christmas story a modern political twist.

“Cholo!” roared one youth playing the role of a police officer, as he scuffled with Jesse Tovar, a 16-year-old student from University High School in Los Angeles, cast as an “innocent person of color.” “You’re from a gang, huh?”

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“Racista!” retorted Tovar, the son of Mexican immigrants. Later, he said he identified with the rejection faced by Mary and Joseph as young, poor migrants from another land.

In Latino communities worldwide, it is the season of Las Posadas, a beloved tradition of candlelight processions reenacting over the nine nights before Christmas the Holy Family’s search for shelter.

Today, many posadas remain primarily religious, featuring Gospel readings and actors outfitted as angels and Jesus’ parents who lead a procession of people to ask for housing at several places before being admitted at a final stop. Other posadas are mainly parties, with an emphasis on the pozole stew and pinatas that usually follow the procession.

But several churches are using posadas to connect the biblical story with such modern issues as immigration, affordable housing and labor rights.

“It’s mythic,” Father Michael Kennedy of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights said of the posada. “That’s when the church is at its best: using popular religiosity to educate people on deeper levels.”

Earlier this week, Kennedy held a posada during a Mass at Central Juvenile Hall. There, he said, he delivered a message of hope to 150 incarcerated youths, telling them that they would eventually find an open door, as Mary and Joseph ultimately found shelter in a stable.

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In their posada, Kennedy and his staff invented a wealthy character who was admitted to the inn, but they noted that God was with the poor couple outside.

“God wasn’t in the comfortable inn; he was in the cave, in the dark place, like you’re in now,” he said he told the youths.

Outside the Hyatt West Hollywood hotel on Sunset Boulevard this week, Morena Hernandez dressed in the blue robes and white veil of the Virgin Mary during a small posada aimed at publicizing hotel workers’ labor contract disputes. Hernandez, a 40-year-old Salvadoran native who has worked as a Hyatt housekeeper for seven years, said she finds special connections with Mary’s struggles.

“She was an immigrant to Bethlehem who fought for a decent place to stay,” Hernandez said. “I’m asking for a decent contract.”

Fred Muir, spokesman for the Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council, said the two sides remained divided over such issues as the length of the contract. But, he said, “There is room for them at the inn,” referring to Hyatt’s policy of providing employees with up to 12 complimentary hotel room nights a year.

The hotel posada was among the nine organized by a coalition of religious, legal and labor organizations highlighting issues facing immigrants in Southern California. Other nights have focused on such issues as working conditions at Wal-Mart stores, access to healthcare in Maywood, housing struggles of mariachi players and efforts of former bracero workers to recover lost pay.

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A posada tonight, scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, will call for legalization of undocumented immigrants.

Spanish missionaries are believed to have created the posada tradition after they brought Roman Catholicism to Mexico in the 16th century.

Some accounts say they used Las Posadas to teach the story of Jesus’ birth and to coincide with local nine-day fiestas celebrating the birth of the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli. The church, long adept at adapting indigenous traditions to Christianity, taught that the nine posada nights represented the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy.

The new, more political versions in Southern California are embraced by various denominations.

Near San Diego, the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee organized its 11th annual posada at the U.S.-Mexican border this week. About 200 participants on both sides of the border, including Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians and committee members, exchanged posada songs and bags of candy across a security fence.

“Just as the Holy Family was denied shelter and forced to suffer, migrants are being denied hospitality and refuge and forced to cross through inhospitable and dangerous terrain -- in many cases, losing their lives,” said Christian Ramirez, program director of the Quaker group’s San Diego office.

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In Santa Monica, St. Anne’s youth group members said their posada skits were drawn from actual experiences, reflecting the biases they say they face as poor, young minorities.

Sabrina Fields, a Santa Monica High School senior of Mexican and African descent, enacted a scene in which she was rejected for a seasonal job at a major toy retailer. Another skit dramatized the inability of many minority youths to apply to four-year colleges and universities because their families cannot afford the application fees.

St. Anne’s pastor, Father Mike Gutierrez, said he began introducing the politically tinged posadas three years ago. Previous themes included the effect of rent decontrol on poor families in Santa Monica and the battle for higher wages among the city’s hotel workers.

Performers such as Tovar say the skits have helped them see an old and familiar tale in a relevant new light.

“People looked at Mary and Joseph as trash,” Tovar said. “They didn’t accept them. Some of us feel we are treated the same way.... People see that we dress baggy and think we’re cholos without even knowing who I am.”

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