A couple processes around the basement of Holy Redeemer Church, dressed like they are from the first century, re-creating a story that’s timeless.
During the procession, friends and families take pictures with their phones, children peering around their parents to get a better look, young and old clapping to a hymn everyone in the hall knows by heart.
En el nombre del cielo, yo os pido posada. …“In the name of heaven, I ask of you shelter.”
Aquí no es mesón; sigan adelante. … “There’s no inn here; go on with you.”
The call and refrain are the same one Joseph exchanged with every innkeeper in Bethlehem, so the reenactors do another lap around the basement, emulating the journey Joseph and Mary took the night of Jesus’ birth.
Throughout Southwest Detroit, the heart of Mexican-American culture in the city, parishes like Holy Redeemer, St. Stephen, and Ste. Anne de Detroit celebrate Las Posadas — “The Inns” in Spanish — an annual Advent devotion.
The tradition, celebrated Dec. 16-24,marks the Holy Family’s journey to the Nativity and echoes the history of a people who have found room in a new country, making it their home.
Then and now
Las Posadas originated in Mexico in the 1500s following the Spanish conquest, when priests sought to replace a pagan winter celebration with a Christian devotion to prepare the newly converted natives for Christmas.
The practice of Las Posadas remained a staple for the Mexican people and for Mexican immigrants who first moved in larger waves to Detroit in the 1920s, attracted by the booming auto industry.
“I remember singing Las Posadas as a little girl. There isn’t a time I can remember when I didn’t know the song,” says Sister Nina Rodriguez, SSJ, a Southwest Detroit native whose parents immigrated to the Motor City from Mexico in 1929.
Las Posadas remained mostly a private family devotion until the 1970s, when another phase of Mexican immigration saw further growth in Southwest Detroit’s “Mexicantown” neighborhood. That’s when families at Ste. Anne de Detroit — Detroit’s oldest parish, founded by French Catholics but by then predominately populated by people of Mexican descent — started having public Las Posadas devotions in the neighborhood.
“When I left to enter the religious community, I had brothers and sisters who, because of the love of our culture, would do Las Posadas at Ste. Anne with a live donkey, going up and down the streets, singing songs that were very meaningful, asking, ‘Do you have room for us?’”
Outdoor processions with donkeys aren’t common today, thanks to Detroit’s bitter cold winters. Instead, Las Posadas take place in parish halls and basements, taking on a special significance: recalling the plight of the Holy Family in Palestine in the first century and acknowledging the current struggles of Mexican families in the United States in the 21stcentury.
“Las Posadas is when you come together with your family and you remember the struggle of your family, being immigrants coming to this country that desire to be welcomed, just as the Holy Family desired to be welcomed,” Sister Rodriguez says. “The whole idea is to remember Jesus, the center of our lives, the reason for the Christmas season. And he came into this world under a difficult situation. His family went through trials, just like our families have gone through trials.”
A celebration of acceptance
The Joseph and Mary reenactors make their way through the parish basement, at each stop being rebutted by a chorus of singers who send them away. Joseph and Mary then do another lap around the basement, before finally coming to the innkeepers once more. It is on this final trip that the innkeepers realize whom they’ve been denying.
Mi esposa es María. Es Reina del Cielo y madre va a ser del Divino Verbo. … “My wife is Mary. She’s the Queen of Heaven who is going to be the mother of the Divine Word.”
¿Eres tú José? Tu esposa es María? Entren, peregrinos; no los conocía. … “Are you Joseph? Is your wife Mary? Enter, pilgrims; I did not recognize you.”
Once the pilgrims are taken in by the innkeepers, the congregation erupts into celebration. They break a piñata, eat tamales and drink hot chocolate, celebrating the birth of the Lord.
Ste. Anne de Detroit had one of the first local Las Posadas traditions, but by the 1980s and ’90s, as more and more Mexican immigrants came into the city and planted roots in the area, theLas Posadas traditions had grown. Today, they celebrate not only the Holy Family being taken in by an innkeeper but a people being taken in by a new country.
“When you think about the entire devotion, who it celebrates and who are the people who are celebrating it, it’s really beautiful,” Sister Rodriguez says. “It has a real meaning to it, real depth. All of us have this inner desire to be received, that someone would open their hearts, their doors, to us. That is what Las Posadas is all about. So, when we celebrate in our parishes, our neighborhoods, we want to be received, respected and loved, and in another country even more so.”
Sister Rodriguez adds that what makes Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem so meaningful is that it reflects everyone’s journey through life, full of both pain and incredible joy.
“What is so powerful is afterward, the people have this great celebration, a beauty in coming together,” Sister Rodriguez says. “Just as in life you struggle, but at the end there is a cause for joy. God hears our prayers. He is with you. And that is what Christmas is — what Emmanuel means — that God is with us.”
After the piñata is broken and the tamales are consumed, families return to their homes to celebrate Christmas. Filled with the renewed hope that comes with the season, and always on the lookout for when Mary and Joseph may come calling again, they make room in their “inns” for Jesus.
“Honestly, it’s in our genes that we want to be accepted,” Sister Rodriguez says. “We want to find hospitality and we want to give that hospitality to others. That’s why we identify with Joseph and Mary so much and why Las Posadasis in our heats. It’s something that is in every human being but maybe more so for Hispanics: a need to find a home and make our home a home for those in need.”