Christmas in Immokalee brings me back to my roots

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
During the procession for Posadas people carry a small light to light their way while walking. (Sharon Zavala)

Immokalee, Florida — Notes from the Field are reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. The project began in the summer of 2015 when, working with the Catholic Volunteer Network, we enlisted four young women working in Honduras, Thailand, Ethiopia and the United States to blog about their experiences. The fall series presents two more women, both volunteering with sisters' ministries in the United States.

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T'is the season to be jolly! And indeed I am jolly, as Christmas is one of my favorite holidays. I love the music, decorations, the spirit of giving, Jesus' birthday, lights, and parties. The most noticeable one of them all in Immokalee is without a doubt the spirit of giving. I attended two events in the past two weeks that give true meaning to this spirit of giving during the holiday season.

I volunteered to be a chaperone for the "Lunch with Santa Event." It was on Saturday, Dec. 12 that a group of about 120 first graders from the Guadalupe After-school Program were eager to meet Santa. One by one they boarded the coach bus and could not stop talking about how comfortable the bus was and how they could not wait to get there. We traveled to Waterside Shops in Naples, Florida. Upon arrival, the kids split up in three groups and rotated between meeting Santa and getting two gifts, getting their faces painted and doing an arts and crafts activity. I noticed that there was a sign that said "Private Event," as though the event was reserved for something special. The children were the special ones for this event because they being treated like the real kings and queens that they are. At the end of the event the children had pizza and danced to the "Cha Cha Slide" and "Gangnam Style."

It was a morning filled with absolute happiness and joy. The children were having the time of their life. As we were lining up to leave the shops, one little boy told me, "Ms. Z, can we please stay here all day? I want to stay here forever!" My heart crumbled because I knew that as soon as they got back to Immokalee, they would go back to reality. The toys that were donated from the staff and customers at Waterside Shops went a long way because for many of them, this will be their only Christmas gift this holiday season. Also, for many children this was the first time they have gotten out of Immokalee because many of their families don't have access to a car. So for them to ride a coach bus was a real luxury.

First graders waiting their turn to sit on Santa’s lap and receive their gifts. (Sharon Zavala)
Cheerful staff and students dancing after a morning full of activities Dec. 12. (Sharon Zavala)

The spirit of giving was very strong at this event. Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. It is happiness because we see joy in people. It is forgetting self and finding time for others. Opening the door of your home and finding time for others is something that I saw happen during one of my favorite traditional events, Las Posadas.

Growing up in a traditional Mexican household was quite the holiday experience. The fondest memories I have of Christmas come from the yearly trips once made to Guanajuato, Mexico, ever since I was a year old. I always looked forward to this time of the year because it was a time for me to get in touch with my roots both culturally and spiritually. I vividly remember spending two weeks with my grandparents, aunts and uncles eating, talking and dancing to banda during the weekend.

But my all-time favorite event is something we call the Posadas. The Posadas is a religious holiday event that has been held each year in cities and towns across Mexico for the past 500 years. It is basically the reenactment of the cold and difficult search for lodging that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a safe refuge where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus. When they were unable to find a place to stay, Mary and Joseph were forced to seek shelter in a stable, where the Christ child was born. In Spanish, the word "posada" means "dwelling" or "lodging." The Posadas begin on Dec. 16 and go on for nine days based on the nine months that Mary carried Jesus in her womb.

Peregrinos (pilgrims) carry the Nativity set up high as they are taken on a pilgrimage to look for a place to stay where Jesus will be born. (Sharon Zavala)

As Christmas was approaching I kept wondering if the Catholic community of Immokalee organized Posadas. It was not long before I was invited by my supervisor at the university to the first day of the Posadas. When she asked me if I wanted to come with her I responded with an instant "yes!"

I have not been to Mexico during the Christmas season for a few years now, but the Posadas in Immokalee made up for those lost years. Mexicans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and people from other Latin American countries make up 80 percent of the population here in Immokalee. The environment and the people made it feel as if I was in the middle of Mexico City celebrating this event, and let me tell you, it was rejuvenating.

Adult participants take turns in hosting the celebration each day. When all the participants arrive at the designated home, the priest recites the rosario (rosary), a very beautiful prayer to Mary. Then the group proceeds to walk to each of the houses previously selected to participate in the posada. The participants stand before the door of each house and sing a song in Spanish "asking for shelter." A small group remains inside the house telling the others that it is impossible to enter.

When we finally get to the house that provides the Posada, we sing a few more Spanish Christmas songs and end the event with the host family distributing a plate of typical Mexican delicacies — hot, fresh tamales and pozole. I was in absolute heaven because the food was incredibly delicious.

Throughout the whole event, I felt so happy to see the Catholic community of Immokalee reunite to celebrate this beautiful tradition. I loved seeing about 100 people — senior citizens, adults, young adults, children and babies — all participate and love this tradition dearly. It was such a powerful experience to have the chance to be part of this tradition again that reinforces and demonstrates the Catholic attachments that Latino culture is subject to. My family and I stopped going to Mexico a few years ago, so I stopped going to posadas.

But being here in Immokalee and celebrating this unique and special tradition again made me think about how no matter where you are, your roots will never disappear. They will always remain with you. I feel as though I have reconnected with my roots and culture during this event. And the more time I spend here in Immokalee the stronger the connection. I feel so happy and blessed to be living in a community that constantly shows what it means to open doors for others and helping them in any way possible. And this, for me, is what Christmas should be all about.

[Sharon Zavala is a Humility of Mary volunteer in Immokalee, Florida. She has bachelor's degrees in environmental studies and Spanish from Allegheny College.]

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