This year school students at El Carillo Magnet School in Barrio Viejo, one of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods, will participate in the 80th annual Las Posadas this Friday, December 16. Las Posadas is a traditional Mexican holiday observance that re-enacts the journey of Mary and Joseph to find shelter upon their arrival in Bethlehem on the eve of the Baby Jesus’ birth. At Carillo the procession is re-enacted by students in the school neighborhood. To learn more about the school tradition we spoke with Yolanda Mesa who has coordinated the event since 1981 and Lori Conner, the school principal.
BorderLore: What is the traditional story of Las Posadas?
Yolanda Mesa: Las Posadas is the journey that Mary and Joseph took through Bethlehem. According the story, they were rejected lodging several times before they were finally accepted. That’s the tradition.
BL: What are the origins of Las Posadas at El Carrillo?
YM: Las Posadas at El Carrillo school started in 1937 with a teacher named Marguerite Collier. She wanted to have more parents be involved in the school. At that time parents were shy to come to the school and felt that teachers were much superior to them. Ms. Collier felt if she did something that they knew well they’d be more comfortable. So she started to attend and study Las Posadas in the Barrio. Then she started a school version. In 1937 the school was predominantly Hispanic or Mexican children. When the school became a magnet school in 1981, we kept up the tradition even though two thirds of our students now come from other neighborhoods. Eventually the neighborhood Las Posadas was replaced by the school version.
BL: How does the El Carrillo version differ from or follow tradition?
YM: In our version, we go to four homes that reject us, and at the 5th home we are accepted and we bring the nativity scene. We sing songs and then return to school where we continue the celebration with the breaking of the piñata. For the last 8 years it’s been the same house that lets us in. We get as many students as fit inside the house.
Lori Conner: In Mexico Las Posadas is a nine-day event. The nativity scene is left in a different home each night and that’s where it starts off the next day. But ours is all in one day. During the whole procession, from the time we leave the schoolyard, there are songs that are sung. It’s all planned out like a play and each song has is meaning. The kids learn all the songs in Spanish. It’s a long procession with a lot of adults on the outside, following. We protect the students with a big rope. All the kids are inside of the two ropes and we have rope holders and the adults are on the outside.
BL: How do students get involved?
YM: They choose to participate. It’s usually about 50 students from first to fifth grade.
BL: And teachers?
YM: The music teacher, Ms. Holl, and Ms. Ruiz teach the songs.
LC: And Ms. Mesa is the organizer of the whole event. Making sure kids have the right costumes, organizing the entertainment before the procession, ordering the food. She’s been the organizer of the whole event for 35 years.
BL: How does the tradition contribute to an understanding of culture and tradition?
YM: It really gives students a sense of community and a feeling that they are part of the community. A lot of outside community members also come in for the event. It gives me a lot of pride in my culture. I see former families come back and they remember. And they students take it as a serious event and they feel very proud.
LC: Many students come back and say things like, “I was the blue angel,” or “I carried the piñata.” We have lots of families who come back year after year to be part of it.
BL: What kind of preparations do the students do before the event?
YM: The students prepare for about six weeks.
LC: The students meet four days a week and learn the songs in Spanish and what they mean. Also, There’s a really big heavy nativity scene that’s lit up. Four students carry that on the shoulders throughout the whole procession. We talk about the meaning of that, that burden and what it means for the story itself. So by digging into that tradition, they gain a maturity in understanding.
BL: What are the costumes and who makes them?
YM: The costumes are traditional Mexican peasant clothing. Colorful blouses and ponchos. We try to preserve as many as we can, but every year we have to replace some of them. The families offer to make them.
BL: How have you negotiated the inclusion of a religious observance as a school festivity?
LC: Because we are a public school, the district has had to go to court over that fact that this is being done. The way we can do it and still abide by laws is that it is done in the extended day program. We have a teacher who is Jewish and was also a student here and participated then. Her daughter wanted to be a part of it, too. So we are inclusive about it.
BL: How has the tradition changed over the years?
YM: Nothing has changed. We have the same roles and same songs. The only thing that changes are the children who participated.
LC: When the tradition started here, all the students were from the neighborhood, 100% Hispanic. Today our school demographic is 78% Hispanic, 11% Anglo, 5% African American 3% native, 2% multiracial, and .3% Asian.
There’s been one other change. We used to have it always on the 15th of December. One year we did it the 9th of December and everyone was off, it didn’t seem right to do it so early. We always look to the closest Friday to December 15th.
BL: What happens after the event?
YM: We celebrate with live mariachi and folklorico dancing.
LC: Differing performance groups come in from our own students to professionals.
BL: Does the event create a sense of place for the school and the neighborhood?
LC: I see several people around the neighborhood bringing donations of food items, usually pastries. The first year I was principal, I was told, “Don’t worry, they’ll bring it. And they sure do!”
YM: The neighborhood itself is a Posada neighborhood so that means it’s a known event. A lot of the families in the barrio have been here forever. They’re children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren have been a part of this tradition. There has been a lot of renovation in the Barrio and new people have come, but there are still a lot of families that have been here forever. And the new people have begun to greet us.