When Shirley Camargo, a Colombian who lives in Miami, set up a nativity scene in her living room last month, she was attempting to recreate a family tradition performed by her aunt. She bought a set of figurines from Costco and then, working from memory and some input from family members, she built the compact display that is now the focal point of her living room.
In engaging in this exercise of devotion, Camargo has joined legions of Latinos who live in the U.S. and whose nacimientos (some parts of Latin America call it pesebres, others portal) extend beyond their faith to serve as statements of cultural pride. As Latinos get more established in the U.S., nativity scenes once displayed only in homes are increasingly put up in public and are incorporating elements from other Latin American countries – resulting in displays as diverse as America’s population.
“I was raised here and I was kind of stripped from pesebres and from what my mom and my aunt had growing up,” said Camargo. “But as you’re raised here you start making your own traditions."
Some historians date nativity scenes back to 1223 and they credit the first to St. Francis of Assisi. Catholic missionaries carried the tradition to Latin America, where nacimientos become an integral part of the Christmas season, which begins well before Christmas Day.
Though the essence of every family’s nativity scene is always the same – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus – the expression of regional and family identity makes each one an individualized statement.
In the heavily Mexican neighborhood of East Los Angeles, there are tours of local nacimientos that are built in front yards. A sampling of scenes demonstrate that people from northern Mexican towns tend toward dry, arid backdrops that might recreate cactus and utilize sand while those from lush regions such as the Yucatan might rely more on greenery, said folklorist Mary MacGregor-Villarreal, who has studied nacimientos in Los Angeles for more than 30 years.
“People come from different regions and have different regional expressions and then when you get here to Los Angeles... you get this similarity. You get a new old,” said Villarreal.
That changed tradition winds up being a blend of one-upmanship – borrowing ideas from others and expanding on that – and availability. Traditionally, women take on the role of assembling the nacimientos and often girls are given figures of the holy family as gifts, which they will use when they are married and begin assembling their own.
“You often have shepherds, wisemen and everyone else dressed in indigenous costumes,” said Marion Oettinger, curator of the San Antonio Museum of Art, which holds an annual benefit where locals can buy figurines that come from Mexico.
But when Latinos, such as Camargo, collect their own their figures, the displays are not necessarily from the same clay molds that have modeled countless holy families before.
Regardless of where the figures might be purchased or whether they bear an ethnic resemblance to the family who is installing the nacimiento, the scenes will inevitably take on the identity of the family and reflect the values that are important to it.
“I’ve seen people put out dinosours, cartoon characters, little horses and soldiers to encourage children to participate,” said Villarreal. “It becomes something that everybody contributes to and makes an emotional attachment.”
That emotional attachment is what Camargo hopes will carry over to the next generation of Latinos.
“This is a challenge for anyone who feels connected to a country but wasn’t raised in that country,” she said. “You have to find your own way to bring that culture to where you live and teach it to your own country.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance reporter based in New York City.