The New York Times
January 7, 1998
Commentary: Three Kings Visit East Harlem, Bearing Hope
By DAVID GONZALEZEW YORK -- A touch of royalty graced East Harlem on Tuesday, when the Three Kings emerged on East 106th Street in flowing capes and robes of shimmering red and gold. Cheers and applause greeted their arrival, as they strode down streets where the morning fog hovered like a mystical blanket.
"The kings have arrived!" echoed through the streets as a Puerto Rican guitarist heralded their arrival with a twangy solo of cascading notes. Along the way, children jumped and shouted while their parents shimmied to the music. "The kings have arrived!"
As the sight of Christmas trees still standing in some apartments proved, Christmas isn't over in this neighborhood until the Three Kings have their annual parade on Jan. 6. The day commemorates the biblical tale of the Magi, who rode camels as they followed a star in the heavens in their journey to present gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Christ child.
In Latin America and much of the Caribbean, Three Kings Day is when presents are exchanged, but only after children leave a box of grass and water by their beds to sate the appetites of the camels.
The original kings, Baltazar, Melchior and Gaspar, were said to be from Africa, Mesopotamia and Asia. The metropolitan Magi in Tuesday's parade journeyed from the South Bronx, the Lower East Side and East Harlem. They had no star to guide them. Instead, they followed their hearts.
"This is still the biggest day for me," said Benny Ayala, a folklorist who portrayed King Melchior. "I came from a poor family, but when I got up in the morning I would always find some little thing. I always thought there would be better days, and now there are. Today, I feel like a king."
The parade has been held for 21 years and is sponsored by El Museo del Barrio, whose staff members walked the route in gold paper crowns, alongside sheep, donkeys and camels. Susana Torruella Leval, the museum director, said the children of many Hispanic immigrants may prefer Santa Claus to the Three Kings. The parade was a way of reinforcing not just a tradition from the old country, but also imparting a lesson for the new one.
"Culture is not just about hanging paintings on a wall," Ms. Torruella Leval said. "This parade is an important part of what we do. The Three Kings were from different lands and came together for a common purpose of bringing gifts. You have a lovely biblical story of diversity, generosity and idealism. They were pursuing a star, not quite sure why. But at the end they found a symbol of hope for humankind."
Paopleto Melendez, resplendent in gold turban and furry white boots as King Gaspar, found hope in the smiling face of each child he encountered on the street. He rushed to the sidelines to greet them, slapping joyous high-fives. Not exactly kingly, but then again, he also wore dreadlocks. ("Hey, one of the kings came from Africa, right?")
"The Magi went to the manger to see the baby Christ," said Melendez, who is a poet and playwright. "In modern times, all these children are the new Christ. Each one is the future. They all have the power to change the world. They have to take it. You know, that carpe diem thing."
Dozens of children took to the message. One school sent a legion of angelic tykes who sported sparkling paper wings. Eric Carreon and two friends wore capes and crowns as they held a tiny wicker basket that cradled a doll of Baby Jesus. Others spoke excitedly of getting together with relatives later in the day.
"We have to give thanks today," said Myriam Giraldo, an eighth-grader photographing the festivities for her school. "I'll be with my family later for dinner with my uncles and cousins. I never get to see them. They live far away. Long Island."
Visitors from the East, indeed. And not just for the children of East Harlem. Leo Rodriguez, 69, danced down East 106th Street when the parade passed by with music blaring and singers crooning. He joined in, intoning a song for the Three Kings the way he used to as a child in Puerto Rico.
"I got my gift when I woke up today," he said, beaming. "I got a hug and a kiss from my mother."
It hardly mattered that his mother, who had taught him those old songs, died last year.
"Last night, I sang to the kings," he said. "And in my sleep, I saw my mother in my dreams, hugging and kissing me like when I was a kid. She looked young. And when I awoke, I could still feel her lips on my cheek. That's why I'm dancing."