New Arrivals From Puerto Rico Spend First Three Kings Day In Frigid Northeast

Jan 5, 2018

After Hurricane Maria, thousands of Puerto Ricans who never planned to leave the island are spending their first January 6 -- also known as Three Kings Day -- in the cold, snowy northeast. 

Three Kings Day -- when Christians worldwide also celebrate the Epiphany -- marks the occasion when three wise men arrived by camel in Bethlehem to bestow gifts upon the newborn Jesus. 

In Puerto Rico, it's an official holiday.

Holyoke, Massachusetts, City Councilor Nelson Roman grew up in New England, but his family is from Puerto Rico, where Santa Claus is strictly second tier, he said.

"My grandmother tells the story how she remembers as a little girl, the first time she saw Santa Claus, in Ponce," Roman said. "She cried because she didn't know who that guy was!"

Roman’s grandmother is 75, born in Puerto Rico almost a decade before the island became a Commonwealth of the U.S.

"As Latinos, even before the U.S., even before Christmas, we were rooted in that European Spaniard mentality, because that was brought by Isabel and Ferdinand from Spain to these island nations," Nelson said.

Three Kings Day is a festive event throughout the entire Caribbean, in Mexico, and other Latin American countries.

Nelson is running this year's Three Kings Day celebration in Holyoke. He remembers as a kid that even if you weren't religious, you knew to put hay under your bed for the wise men's camels, and you'd wake up to gifts.   

"I have never seen a Santa Claus at our school!"

Before Hurricane Maria hit the home of 17-year-old Mayrangelique Rojas De León, who lived along the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, that's what she and her sister did every year.

Mayrangelique Rojas De Leon and her mother Amarylis De Leon, who came to Holyoke, Massachusetts, from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

"I have never seen a Santa Claus at our school," Mayrangelique said. "But I always saw the Three Kings. But they're on horses, because in Puerto Rico there are no camels." And Mayrangelique said she did see them once arrive on motorcycles.

When she was little, Mayrangelique said she would try without success every year to stay awake and greet the Three Kings. In the morning when she opened her eyes, grass was all over the place. (Her father, she said, blamed the camels.) Then she saw the gifts left by the wise men.  

De León said she always believed in the Three Kings, and never in Santa Claus.

On a frigid day in Holyoke, she sat with her mother in the lobby of a hotel, right off a highway. FEMA is housing families from Puerto Rico in the hotel until they find other options or are able to return to their homes on the island.

A month after the hurricane, Mayrangelique started as a senior at Holyoke High School. She wants to stay on the mainland and go to college.  

Her mother, Amarylis De León, and a few other Puerto Ricans also in the lobby, talked about how they'll miss their holiday traditions this year: the food, the drinks, the sweets -- and the parrandas, the parties that move from house to house between Christmas and Three Kings Day.

Puerto Ricans Continue to Come

They are not alone. By the end of December, more than 840 people from Puerto Rico had arrived in Holyoke.

At least 240 of them are children enrolled in the city's public schools. Most of them are categorized as homeless, even if they are staying with family.

Francheska Roman, her husband and their three young sons arrived at the hotel on Christmas Day. Their home on the northern coast of Puerto Rico was destroyed. They appear exhausted.

Francheska Roman, her husband Henrry Rosario and one of their three sons. Their family arrived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on Christmas day. Their home in the northern part of Puerto Rico was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in September.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

If they were on the island, they would be getting ready to host a big Three Kings Day party, they said, with about 200 people, a big pork dish and other food. They would put hay outside under a tree for the Three Kings and their camels.

But this year, in a hotel, Francheska said, with no kitchen, they don't know what they'll do, and they have no pasto -- no hay for their children to put under their beds. Still, the most important thing at the moment: "We are together as a family," she said.

Amarylis De León, who's been here the longest, told Francheska she'll show her how to enroll the kids in school, and she told them about the Three Kings celebration on Saturday taking place an elementary school in the city.  

Three Kings will show up and hand out presents to every child.

This year, special attention is being paid to those new arrivals -- and one of the three kings, a tall man named Gary, also just came from Puerto Rico.