East 6th Street is as ugly as any other part of Skid Row. It is also about as rough as Skid Row gets. Drug dealings and the attendant violence have made it about the last place one would look to find two events that happened one night last week--a Christmas procession of little children and their families led by a band of mariachis, followed by a roast beef dinner for those families catered by Lawry's The Prime Rib restaurant of Beverly Hills.
Las Familias del Pueblo's annual Las Posadas party was, for all concerned, a night to remember.
Las Familias is a community center and service organization that helps families, most of them Latino, move off Skid Row to areas more suitable for children. While the families are on Skid Row, however, it provides a variety of services.
Program Started in '82
Since Las Familias started in 1982, it has helped about 190 families relocate, said the Rev. Alice Callaghan, the organization's founding director and an Episcopalian priest affiliated with All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena. At its peak, about 400 families lived within the Skid Row boundaries, she said. Today, about 70 to 80 families remain.
Most of those remaining seemed to be at the Christmas party.
It started (4:30 p.m.) and ended (7:30 p.m.) a little earlier than usual, Callaghan said, because of the increasing danger: "We wanted to get the families (here) . . . and off the street as soon as possible."
The main dangers inside Las Familias' big room, however, appeared to be the possibility of tripping over baby strollers and toys, being trampled by a phalanx of excited children on the move or deafened by their cries combined with the joyful blasts of Mariachi Azteca. As the adults gathered inside, the spillover crowd of children played outside on huge plastic climbing toys that were set on the sidewalk, the only playground area Las Familias has.
As darkness began to fall, staff members Annamarie Rivera, Nancy Berlin and Kerry Tingley began passing out candles to adults and older children. Callaghan, who had earlier passed out song sheets, finally gave up trying to get the people to rehearse and shrugged. "Every year it's the same problem," she said. "Nobody knows the songs."
She chose a young man to lead the procession and handed him a smoking brass thurible on chains (the type of censers used in liturgical ceremonies) which she had loaded with charcoal and incense.
Calling out, "En frente, everybody, en frente, " she headed out the door.
Las Posadas is a traditional Christmas procession in Latin American countries that re-enacts the journey of Mary and Joseph searching for lodgings in Bethlehem. The procession approaches several dwellings, where, by arrangement, they are refused entry ("No room in the inn") until they finally are taken in at a place representing the stable.
In past years, Callaghan said, the Skid Row procession involved costumes and visits to a number of hotels. This year, again because of danger, it was scaled down to a visit to the Simon Hotel two blocks down 6th Street.
The two blocks, however, contained a microcosm of Skid Row hazards. With the marchers shielding their candles against a light wind and mothers trying to keep sight of their children, they took off slowly, the mariachis leading them in a few carols and "Feliz Navidad . " "I want to wish you a merry Christmas," they sang over and over. As they neared the hotel they passed a small, unlit park at Gladys Street which has been serving as home for a number of homeless people, not all of them peaceful. The park reportedly has been the scene of fights, muggings, stabbings and drug deals.
Three or four clusters of homeless people huddled around cooking fires were discernible. Near the sidewalk and street light, one woman stood in the rubbish near a fire, holding a red-and-white box of lard, spooning it into a pan of squash. A few tables of men playing cards and chess stopped to look at the carolers, some bemused, some mocking, some calling out a friendly greeting. One young man emerged from the concrete toilets, bopping and clapping to the mariachis, yelling out "Merry Christmas, everybody."
"He probably just shot up," one of the adults in the procession murmured.
The little ones just kept yelling "Merry Christmas" and "Feliz Navidad" to the shadowy figures.
Arriving at the Hotel
At the Simon Hotel Christmas lights lined one window on the second floor and shone dimly through the grimy glass. The old building looked like it could not accommodate the hundred or so visitors, and climbing up the staircase that opened onto the street was a lengthy process. While they processed double file, one passer-by approached a man waiting to go up, asking what was going on.
"I don't know, man," he answered. "I'm just standing here holding a candle."