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All That's Holy, and Then Some

East L.A.'s eclectic Nativity scenes proudly connote Mexican heritage as well as the birth of Christ.


When fantasies are not just allowed but expected, residents of East Los Angeles rise to the occasion. In a few frontyards this Christmas season--which includes today's Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus--Nativity scenes go beyond statues of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. In these imaginative creations, the holy family looks out from Bethlehem onto tropical jungles and snowy Victorian towns, dinosaur parks and roadside taco stands. Everything fits together in one vast diorama that takes the original Christmas story to unexpected places.

Private daydreams mix with family history in these narratives, which more often than not cover most of a front lawn. Santa and his reindeer fly overhead beside pink wedding bells from a Las Vegas chapel. Children's rubber turtles crawl beside a tin-foil waterfall. Perfume bottles balance near the baby Jesus' crib. After all, a nacimiento, a Latino Nativity scene, has traditions of its own to live up to.

"Every nacimiento has a family story behind it," says James Rojas, 42, a city planner with the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Los Angeles. Rojas organized a tour being conducted today of nacimientos. It is sponsored by the Latino Urban Forum, a loose association of architects and city planners that looks for ways to preserve and enhance Latino communities.

"If we are going to improve our communities, we need to understand how they work," says Rojas, a compact man with a Pancho Villa mustache. "The tour is a way to highlight nacimientos and make people aware of them. We need to understand they are important to some people." He compares the sprawling sculptural dramas to neighborhood murals and local monuments. "All of them are public expressions that reflect something of the owners," he says.

In the heavily Mexican American neighborhoods of East L.A.--on Clarence Street, Mott Street and others--an essential ingredient of any nacimiento is a scene from rural Mexico. Ponies run free in a corral, pigs loll in the mud, a woman in a bright serape carries water among the shadows of a manger scene.

Each of these homemade creations is distinctively original, but all of them are made with simple ingredients. A baby doll for Jesus, a mirror for a lake to suggest the long journey to Bethlehem, plaster figures from more typical manger scenes to represent the saints are all crowded into a vision that defies the laws of scale and perspective.

Beneath it, a landscape made from hard-packed dirt covers a kitchen table top, or sometimes a set of stairs is carpeted in green plastic turf. It can take an entire family days or even weeks to put it all together. Ideally the scene is in place by Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the start of the Christmas season in Mexico.

Most of these reverent dioramas are passed down through families, from generation to generation, and the majority of them are displayed indoors for their protection. As a boy growing up in Boyle Heights, Rojas helped his grandmother install hers in the living room each year. But to him, the frontyard displays are much more daring. "You're making a public statement about who you are," he says.

Folklorist Mary MacGregor Villarreal has studied Los Angeles' nacimientos for 30 years.

"Put the scene outside, and it is a badge of Mexican identity," she says. Usually, it's a woman in the family who preserves the nacimiento pieces in her house from year to year, just as her mother did before her. A younger member of the family is asked to be the godmother, whose responsibility it is to make clothing for the statue of the infant and dress the figure for the visit of the three kings.

Legend holds that Nativity scenes were first introduced in Italy in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi, who asked a man to build a manger so that he could say Mass in front of it. By the 18th century, workshops across Europe and Latin America specialized in producing Nativity sculptures. Families collected the basic pieces but added other scenes from their own home towns. "It heightened the realism to include modern taverns and markets," says Johanna Hecht, a curator of European sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "It was an effort to engage the audience and to say, 'You are present at the birth.'" The Met's famous Nativity scene, displayed around the annual Christmas tree in the museum's sculpture galleries, is from Naples, Italy, and once belonged to private collectors. Some 50 ceramic angels fill out the scene. "There was rivalry to see which family could outdo the others," Hecht says. "A Nativity scene could extend through several rooms of the house and onto the rooftop."

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