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Holiday for Día de los Reyes honors spirit of giving

Families gathered in Humboldt Park on Thursday to celebrate Three Kings Day, a popular Latin American holiday.

Kids receive gifts during a Three Kings Day celebration by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center outside of ¡WEPA! Mercado Del Pueblo, 2559 W. Division St. in Humboldt Park.
Kids receive gifts during a Three Kings Day celebration by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center outside of ¡WEPA! Mercado Del Pueblo, 2559 W. Division St. in Humboldt Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The parking lot of the ¡WEPA! Mercado Del Pueblo market was filled with children laughing and drinking hot cocoa as members of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center handed out gifts Thursday.

Even though Christmas has come and gone, children like 10-year-old Yisel Moondragon and her mom, Lupe Cabanas, are wrapping up their holiday season with Día de los Reyes.

A popular holiday in Latin America, Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings Day, commemorates the biblical story of the three wise men’s journey to honor baby Jesus with gifts. Traditions for the holiday include a special holiday cake with a baby Jesus figurine in the center and, of course, presents.

“I remember when I was a kid, I couldn’t wait for January the sixth to get gifts,” said Caesar Zepeda, a member of the Latin American Motorcycle Association, one of the sponsors for the day’s event along with the cultural center and West Town Bikes. Zepeda was dressed as one of the three kings.

Jose Lopez, executive director for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, said Jan. 6 is “probably the most important date in the Puerto Rican ritual calendar.”

“The three kings represent, in the Puerto Rican imaginary, something very, very unique,” he said. “In Puerto Rico, they are called Santo Reyes Magos, meaning they are saints. And in Puerto Rico, there’s a whole tradition of making promises to them. They become very, very important in terms of the spiritual elements of Puerto Rico.”

Volunteers dressed as the three kings join a Three Kings Day celebration Thursday by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center outside of ¡WEPA! Mercado Del Pueblo in Humboldt Park.
Volunteers dressed as the three kings join a Three Kings Day celebration Thursday by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center outside of ¡WEPA! Mercado Del Pueblo in Humboldt Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Cabanas said she found out about Thursday’s event from Facebook. Like Zepeda, Cabanas was excited to share an important tradition from her Latino heritage with her daughter.

“It’s exciting because it’s for us Mexicans,” she said. “It’s very traditional, and we kept that tradition going so it’s something nice, something extraordinary.”

For Yisel, opening the gifts couldn’t wait until they got home. As her mom held her new pink bike, Yisel tore off the wrapping paper to unveil a painting kit. She said she plans to paint a picture for her mom.

Thursday’s event normally comes with a parade. But because of COVID-19 and the biting cold, the cultural center, West Town Bikes and the Latin American Motorcycle Association had to cancel the parade.

Still, by late afternoon, Lopez said, 70 bikes had been donated, and they were quickly running through the nearly 2,000 wrapped gifts that were donated by community members and Toys for Tots.

“Just being here and having this kind of festivity in the middle of the pandemic is a sign of hope,” said Lopez.

Devon Davis and his little sister, Kenya McGowan, attended with their grandfather, Mike McGowan.

The siblings left with two gifts each.

Devon, 9, said his favorite part is “having family surround you and you get cool things.”

McGowan said he’d brought his two grandkids last year and was happy when he heard the event would take place again.

“This is wonderful,” he said. “It’s good that they give back to the neighborhood and the children, especially through the rough time that’s going on right now.”

Devon Davis and sister, Kenya McGowan, hold gifts they received during a Three Kings Day celebration by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center outside of ¡WEPA! Mercado Del Pueblo.
Devon Davis and sister, Kenya McGowan, hold gifts they received during a Three Kings Day celebration by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center outside of ¡WEPA! Mercado Del Pueblo.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.