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Camels Walk Mile For 3 Kings

Puerto Ricans, Others Throng Park Street For Magic Of Magi Parade

By PENELOPE OVERTON, Courant Staff Writer

January 07, 2008

When he was a boy, Poder Ramos used to slip a box of grass under his bed the night before Three Kings Day, hoping to comfort a hungry camel carrying a gift-bearing king to baby Jesus.

The East Hartford man hadn't celebrated this popular Hispanic holiday in years, but on Sunday, Ramos brought his family to Hartford to watch the Three Kings Day parade.

"It was a big deal to me as a kid, but over time, when I grew up and got so busy, it kind of faded," Ramos said. "It used to be a religious event, but now, for Puerto Ricans in the States, it's a cultural one, too."

Three Kings Day, or the Feast of Epiphany, marks the day the three kings Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar arrived on camels in Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for Jesus.

In Puerto Rico, like many other parts of Latin America, families celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Christ, but most families follow the example of the Magi and exchange gifts on Three Kings Day, which is observed on Jan. 6.

Children leave boxes of grass, hay or carrots to feed the camels. They wake up in the morning with the boxes full of presents. Other traditions include the "raiding" of the Christmas tree, which is often decorated with chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil, as it is taken down.

Treated as an official holiday in America's big cities now, Hartford has been holding a Three Kings Day celebration for at least 30 years, said Mayor Eddie Perez, one of the many civic leaders who marched in Sunday's parade.

In Puerto Rico, which is the ancestral home of so many of Hartford's Latino population, the Three Kings are more popular than Santa Claus, a tradition that many Puerto Ricans here are trying to preserve.

Perez remembers a few years as a young child in New York City, right after moving from the island, when his family celebrated only Christmas. As a boy, Perez felt as if he was being asked to choose between two cultures.

"Assimilating isn't easy," Perez said. "There's a push and a pull, the urge to be totally one thing or another, but we have to find ways to honor all parts of who we are now. That's what we're doing here."

Throngs of people lined Park Street to cheer and snap photos of the camels and brightly robed kings. Some marchers threw candy to children, while others chanted empowerment slogans.

Carmen Perez, no relation to the mayor, celebrated Three Kings Day as a child in Puerto Rico. Over the years, she has encouraged family and friends to come with her to the Hartford parade. On Sunday, she led a group of three families.

"This is about holding on to our roots," said Estelle Crowley, Perez's niece.

Each year, the event's sponsors the Spanish American Merchants Association and the Institute for the Hispanic Family choose three men who have served the community well to be Magi.

The Magi of 2008 were Juan Contreras, an institute board member, Luis Rodriquez, the owner of Hartford's popular Comerio restaurant, and state Rep. Juan Candelaria of New Haven.

"It's not everyday you are asked to become a king," said Candelaria. "It turns out that riding a camel is kind of painful, but you forget about it when you see the looks on the faces of all those happy kids."

The parade ended at Pope Park. Inside the recreation center, about 800 families waited with their children to receive one of the gifts donated by community groups and businesses across Connecticut.

The organizers had a hard time collecting gifts this year, said Angel Sierra, SAMA's board president. Three Kings has become such a popular holiday that donors are being asked to support multiple events.

"We were still out there yesterday hunting down toys," Sierra said.

Outside, children waited in line for a chance to ride a camel.

It was what had captured the imagination of Poder Ramos' 10-year-old nephew, Frankie Vega, until he saw the camels pass by.

"Bigger than cars!" the wide-eyed boy said. "That is too big for me."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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