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San Diego's Mexicans make nacimientos for Christmas

Shepherds, angels, pilgrims, and livestock

Ruth Zuñiga, 102, has been erecting a nacimiento in some form at every Christmas since she was a small child. With old age making it difficult for her to move, she has kept her nacimiento in the garage since Christmas of 1999.

About 20 feet wide and 5 feet deep, Zuñiga’s nacimiento isn’t just a Nativity scene. Mounted on two tables covered with soil, it’s another world in miniature. There are hillside villages of cardboard homes, a dirt field strewn with animals (deer, reindeer, foxes, dogs, sheep, chickens, and rabbits), shepherds, angels, pilgrims, churches, and two representations of the Holy Family. The first shows Joseph leading Mary into Bethlehem on a donkey with the devil close at their heels. The second shows them in larger form, adoring their newborn son, Jesus, in the presence of the angels and three kings dressed in silk. Surrounding this surreal representation of Christmas are artificial tree branches, poinsettias, tinfoil, garland tinsel, Christmas bulbs, and colored Christmas lights. When the lights are switched on, there is an added effect: the sound of chirping birds. Zuñiga says that’s supposed to indicate the joy of the animals at the birth of Christ.

Nacimientos are put up in most Mexican households and are often elaborate. Although in this country they are far more prevalent in the immigrant enclaves of East Los Angeles, San Diego has a few holdouts who practice what appears to be a dying art here. In Zuñiga’s case, she learned it as a child in Mexico. “I’ve been doing this since I can remember.”

At four feet nine inches, Zuñiga hardly cuts an imposing figure. A hand-colored photo of her and her husband that hangs on the wall reveals a different woman. Taken in the 1940s, the picture shows a strong lady grimacing with defiance at a world she seemed determined to conquer. The mother of 20 children, 12 of whom are still alive, Zuñiga is cared for by 5 of her daughters, who rotate duties each night of the week. She also has 57 grandchildren, 83 great-grandchildren, and 20 great-great-grandchildren. Two of her daughters, Dolores Hirzel and Jenny Avilucea, translate her account of the nacimiento tradition.

Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Zuñiga moved to America through Texas and first settled in Deming, New Mexico. She came to San Diego in 1922. At first an Old Town resident, she moved to Logan Heights in 1935 and has lived in the same house (next door to her old house) since 1954.

Zuñiga describes a nacimiento as “when the baby Jesus was born. It’s a Nativity scene. The pastors or shepherds come with the wise kings, bringing gifts. They bring blankets and food. It’s a big celebration. It’s when the Son of God was born.”

There seems to be a story for every figure. “The devil is trying to keep Joseph and Mary from coming to Bethlehem. But the angel fights off the devil. Each one of these are people bringing gifts. It’s all homemade, and the houses have dolls inside of them. Some of these ceramic houses I bought later on.”

Zuñiga estimates that over the past 80 years, she has probably spent close to $300 on her nacimiento — but her sense of money is grounded in the past, and her daughters admit that the actual cost is unclear. She made many of the little houses herself. The statues of the three kings and Jesus were ordered by mail from Mexico. “You can make a nacimiento with anything. The most expensive thing was the kings. I used to have a bigger baby Jesus, but now I use the smaller one. It was too big.”

Growing up on a ranch in Mexico, Zuñiga says that all the people of the ranches and nearby village participated in a tradition dictated by a book whose title she no longer remembers. Part of the tradition included a Christmas play, called las pastorelas, in which the actors had specific instructions for costumes and roles. “There have to be eight shepherds. They come with hats and flowers. The color of their pants has to match their socks. They must have a spoon, a fork, and a cup.”

“We’ve done this ourselves,” Dolores Hirzel explains. “She had all of us dressed like these shepherds.”

“We have a movie of it,” Jenny Avilucea adds.

“People used to do this where I lived in Michoacán,” says Zuñiga.

“Every little ranch had their own nacimiento,” says Avilucea. “The people would visit the different ones, bringing gifts and singing. They would go to different houses to see how they were doing it. It was part of the posada.”

Las posadas, another tradition in Mexico, is a procession that takes place on each of the nine days before Christmas. Usually held by candlelight, the procession reenacts Joseph and Mary’s refusal at the inns of Bethlehem and exile to a stable.

“When the Virgin was looking for a place,” Zuñiga says, “and they were trying to find out where Jesus would be born. We would do that with our neighbors when I was young.”

“When we were kids,” Avilucea says, “not many people had the play, but there were a lot of Nativity scenes.”

“They were smaller Nativity scenes, though,” Hirzel says. “Sometimes all you would see was the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, and Joseph.”

“A lot of people have come over the years to see this nacimiento,” says Avilucea. “We used to have more lights. We had the big live play here in the back yard in 1985, and a lot of people came to it. It had all of her kids who were still alive in it and many of the grandchildren.”

Avilucea puts a videotape in the VCR and turns on the television. A title reads “La Ceremonia de Navidad Noche Buena 1985 a la Casa de Señora Zuñiga.” Shot at night, the tape shows several older men and women dressed in elaborate, colorful silk costumes, all made by Zuñiga. The shepherds wear knee pants with high socks and wide-brimmed sombreros decorated with flowers. They carry staffs topped with bells, flowers, and ribbons, and they shake the staffs in ceremonial fashion. A younger Zuñiga appears occasionally, also in costume, looking much more animated than she is now. A script is chanted in a singsong manner to a repetitious melody. All are gathered around a basket holding a life-sized statue of the infant Jesus.

Zuñiga reflects on why few Mexican-Americans are putting up nacimientos anymore. “They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to be bothered to learn what the story is all about. You still see a lot of it in Mexico. It’s how I’ve raised my children. I can say that none of my kids are on drugs, and I’m real proud of that.”

Located at the corner of Sicard and Irving in Logan Heights, St. Anne Catholic Church is the diocese of San Diego’s poorest and least-known parish. Father Robert Nikliborc, 72, has been St. Anne’s pastor for 31 years (he tried retirement for seven months and was brought back because he missed the work and the parishioners missed him). At a Saturday-morning Mass for children studying catechism, Father Nikliborc talks about the origins of the nacimiento during his homily. “People ask me, where does this come from? Where did it start? It started with St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s. It’s been a Christmas tradition ever since. It’s our obligation to pass the good news on, just as St. Francis did.” After Communion, Maria, the church’s caretaker, kneels in front of the church’s official Nativity scene, hovering over a large statue of Jesus lying in a manger.

The children at Mass made their own nacimientos, a tradition Father Nikliborc says has always been part of parish life. The altar of St. Anne’s is surrounded by 33 miniature Nativity scenes, all handmade by children between the ages of 6 and 12. Some are as simple as drawings on poster board. Most are primitive models made from cardboard, covered with wrapping paper, magazine clippings, felt, grass, string, cotton, and other disposable items. Some of the figures are ceramic, but most are paper or soft clay. Prizes are given for the best nacimientos. First prize, a bicycle, went to Valentina Ramirez Huezo, aged 7. Atop her nacimiento is a letter written on a yellow piece of paper cut in the shape of a star: “Dear Baby Jesus, I am glad it is almost your birthday. Thank you very much for my house, food, and family. I’m very happy you were born so you can help us. I love baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph. Merry Christmas to all.” The figures are clay. The stable floor is made of pressed wood, and the roof is covered with contact paper with a brick print. Two small branches from a fir tree stand alone as trees in front of the stable.

Valentina’s cousin, Denise Huezo, aged 9, has a nacimiento made from cardboard, covered with red gift wrap. “It took me about two days to make it. We don’t have one at home anymore. We had one from a long time ago, but it kept falling down and stuff, so we had to throw it away. We couldn’t fix it.” Behind the Holy Family is a blue-crayoned background with a Star of David made entirely of Popsicle sticks. Intertwined through the star is a red heart made from a pipe cleaner. The infant Jesus is a tiny ceramic figurine; a construction-paper Mary, held up by tape, kneels before Him. St. Joseph is conspicuously absent.

Another nacimiento has a poem taped to its roof that reads: “Christmas is the miracle of Christ’s birth. The Virgin conceiving, miraculous and amazing. A star shining, angels praising, shepherds kneeling, throngs adoring, joy increasing, spirits soaring.”

Edgar Ramirez, 10, holds his nacimiento and explains its construction. “The stable is made from twigs from a tree. The grass is made out of string. The figures are hand-painted. I got them from Mexico. The star over the stable is tinfoil.”

Father Nikliborc knows Ruth Zuñiga as a parishioner and has seen her nacimiento many times. He was not aware, however, of her Christmas play. “We put one on this year at the church. The children did it for midnight Mass. We have a girl who is the parish queen, and we darken the church and she brings the baby Jesus up with one light shining on her. We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Spanish and English, and that’s how we start our midnight Mass. I call it ‘midnight Mass New York time,’ because we do it at nine o’clock!

“But I think these little nacimientos are really something. It takes some time for them to do it. These more elaborate ones are probably done with the help of Mama and Papa. Even the drawings — when I first started here, they were mostly drawings. I think this is good for the kids to realize that it’s Jesus’ birthday.”

The secularization of Christmas bothers Father Nikliborc, and he is proud of the Mexican culture that resists it. “For years, even now, they don’t wait for Santa Claus — they wait for the Niño Jesús, the baby Jesus. It’s His birthday, and that’s how they’ve been brought up. Most Mexicans don’t receive gifts at Christmastime. They receive gifts on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Most of them will be receiving gifts then. People outside of this parish adopt families within the parish and provide them with Christmas. I go around to a lot of homes to bless them, and there are a lot of nacimientos in the homes. When I was a kid in Chicago, we took the branches off the apple tree in the back yard and made our nacimiento — a big one — in the house, with three Christmas trees behind it with all-blue lights. Since there were nine of us in the family, there were nine sheep lined up. The black sheep got a stick for Christmas because he or she misbehaved!” He laughs. “We sang carols. We kept our nacimiento up until February 2, which is Candlemass Day. Only we called the nacimiento the ‘Christmas Crib.’ ”

On 38th Street, one block south of National Avenue, Enrique Elizalde’s modest home blends in with the rest of the houses. Like his neighbors, Elizalde, 48, has Christmas lights on his house, but unlike the others, he has a nacimiento in his yard. Part manufactured, part homemade, Elizalde’s nacimiento has statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a shelter of Christmas lights. A mechanical Santa Claus is perched near a saguaro cactus. A sleigh with reindeer is on the roof. A palm tree of Christmas lights sits in the middle of the yard, and an angel crowns the scene from the back fence. Though far less elaborate than Zuñiga’s, Elizalde’s nacimiento is no less inspired.

“I come from Mexicali, and I’ve lived here for 26 years, 12 at this house. In Mexicali, everybody has nacimientos, but this is the first time I’ve done it here. I consider that this is the best thing for a family to do. I have two daughters, a 4-year-old and a 22-year-old. I did this because I wanted to show my youngest daughter what Christmas really is about. I made the three kings and angel myself. The whole thing took me about 12 hours. I got the lumber for it out of the trash. I got the idea of a palm tree in a religious movie. I’m going to keep adding to it. I tried to make a camel but couldn’t finish it this time. But if you look over on the fence, you can see the lights in the outline of a horse. Come back next year and there will be even more!”

A truck driver, Elizalde has been out of work for a year. “Before, I was too busy, but this year I had time to do this. This is very common in Mexico, but here, all you see is Santa Claus. The real meaning of Christmas is that Jesus is coming. A lot of people have come by here and taken their hats off or made the sign of the cross.”

Several barrio residents recommend a nacimiento in the front yard of a house atop 36th Street hill at Franklin Avenue. On the left side of the front gate is an illuminated Nativity scene. To the right are illuminated figures of Santa Claus, Pooh Bear, snowmen, carolers, and angels. Thousands of lights surround the scene.

While the Latino population admires the display, the owner of the house is not Mexican-American. Pauline Green is African-American. “I’ve been here close to 20 years, and I’ve been putting it up ever since I first moved here. I have no idea how much I’ve spent over the years for this. I just go piece by piece. They got the knock-off stuff and markdowns after Christmas, and that’s when I pick up pieces like that. Then when Christmas comes, I put it up.”

A native of Arkansas, Green moved to San Diego in 1969. “I notice a lot of Mexicans coming around and stopping to look at the display. One year, they came by before I got started, and they wanted to know if I was going to be putting it up again. They said, ‘I come to see if you’re doing your yard,’ and I said, ‘Not yet. I’m getting started.’ It’s mostly anybody’s tradition that wants to do it. One year, a helicopter hovered over the yard and took pictures — I guess it was the news people. My niece saw my house on the news one time and said, ‘Hey, that’s Aunt Pauline’s house!’ People in Arkansas do this all over at Christmas.

“I was raised that way as a kid in the country. I’m a religious person. I used to go to Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, but they’ve closed down now, so I visit different ones. Mary, Joseph, and the baby — that’s everybody’s figures. Anybody can do this. Christmas means for me just like it means for the Mexicans: the holy baby Jesus was born. But nobody’s ever bothered my yard. They just love to look at it."

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Ruth Zuñiga, 102, has been erecting a nacimiento in some form at every Christmas since she was a small child. With old age making it difficult for her to move, she has kept her nacimiento in the garage since Christmas of 1999.

About 20 feet wide and 5 feet deep, Zuñiga’s nacimiento isn’t just a Nativity scene. Mounted on two tables covered with soil, it’s another world in miniature. There are hillside villages of cardboard homes, a dirt field strewn with animals (deer, reindeer, foxes, dogs, sheep, chickens, and rabbits), shepherds, angels, pilgrims, churches, and two representations of the Holy Family. The first shows Joseph leading Mary into Bethlehem on a donkey with the devil close at their heels. The second shows them in larger form, adoring their newborn son, Jesus, in the presence of the angels and three kings dressed in silk. Surrounding this surreal representation of Christmas are artificial tree branches, poinsettias, tinfoil, garland tinsel, Christmas bulbs, and colored Christmas lights. When the lights are switched on, there is an added effect: the sound of chirping birds. Zuñiga says that’s supposed to indicate the joy of the animals at the birth of Christ.

Nacimientos are put up in most Mexican households and are often elaborate. Although in this country they are far more prevalent in the immigrant enclaves of East Los Angeles, San Diego has a few holdouts who practice what appears to be a dying art here. In Zuñiga’s case, she learned it as a child in Mexico. “I’ve been doing this since I can remember.”

At four feet nine inches, Zuñiga hardly cuts an imposing figure. A hand-colored photo of her and her husband that hangs on the wall reveals a different woman. Taken in the 1940s, the picture shows a strong lady grimacing with defiance at a world she seemed determined to conquer. The mother of 20 children, 12 of whom are still alive, Zuñiga is cared for by 5 of her daughters, who rotate duties each night of the week. She also has 57 grandchildren, 83 great-grandchildren, and 20 great-great-grandchildren. Two of her daughters, Dolores Hirzel and Jenny Avilucea, translate her account of the nacimiento tradition.

Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Zuñiga moved to America through Texas and first settled in Deming, New Mexico. She came to San Diego in 1922. At first an Old Town resident, she moved to Logan Heights in 1935 and has lived in the same house (next door to her old house) since 1954.

Zuñiga describes a nacimiento as “when the baby Jesus was born. It’s a Nativity scene. The pastors or shepherds come with the wise kings, bringing gifts. They bring blankets and food. It’s a big celebration. It’s when the Son of God was born.”

There seems to be a story for every figure. “The devil is trying to keep Joseph and Mary from coming to Bethlehem. But the angel fights off the devil. Each one of these are people bringing gifts. It’s all homemade, and the houses have dolls inside of them. Some of these ceramic houses I bought later on.”

Zuñiga estimates that over the past 80 years, she has probably spent close to $300 on her nacimiento — but her sense of money is grounded in the past, and her daughters admit that the actual cost is unclear. She made many of the little houses herself. The statues of the three kings and Jesus were ordered by mail from Mexico. “You can make a nacimiento with anything. The most expensive thing was the kings. I used to have a bigger baby Jesus, but now I use the smaller one. It was too big.”

Growing up on a ranch in Mexico, Zuñiga says that all the people of the ranches and nearby village participated in a tradition dictated by a book whose title she no longer remembers. Part of the tradition included a Christmas play, called las pastorelas, in which the actors had specific instructions for costumes and roles. “There have to be eight shepherds. They come with hats and flowers. The color of their pants has to match their socks. They must have a spoon, a fork, and a cup.”

“We’ve done this ourselves,” Dolores Hirzel explains. “She had all of us dressed like these shepherds.”

“We have a movie of it,” Jenny Avilucea adds.

“People used to do this where I lived in Michoacán,” says Zuñiga.

“Every little ranch had their own nacimiento,” says Avilucea. “The people would visit the different ones, bringing gifts and singing. They would go to different houses to see how they were doing it. It was part of the posada.”

Las posadas, another tradition in Mexico, is a procession that takes place on each of the nine days before Christmas. Usually held by candlelight, the procession reenacts Joseph and Mary’s refusal at the inns of Bethlehem and exile to a stable.

“When the Virgin was looking for a place,” Zuñiga says, “and they were trying to find out where Jesus would be born. We would do that with our neighbors when I was young.”

“When we were kids,” Avilucea says, “not many people had the play, but there were a lot of Nativity scenes.”

“They were smaller Nativity scenes, though,” Hirzel says. “Sometimes all you would see was the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, and Joseph.”

“A lot of people have come over the years to see this nacimiento,” says Avilucea. “We used to have more lights. We had the big live play here in the back yard in 1985, and a lot of people came to it. It had all of her kids who were still alive in it and many of the grandchildren.”

Avilucea puts a videotape in the VCR and turns on the television. A title reads “La Ceremonia de Navidad Noche Buena 1985 a la Casa de Señora Zuñiga.” Shot at night, the tape shows several older men and women dressed in elaborate, colorful silk costumes, all made by Zuñiga. The shepherds wear knee pants with high socks and wide-brimmed sombreros decorated with flowers. They carry staffs topped with bells, flowers, and ribbons, and they shake the staffs in ceremonial fashion. A younger Zuñiga appears occasionally, also in costume, looking much more animated than she is now. A script is chanted in a singsong manner to a repetitious melody. All are gathered around a basket holding a life-sized statue of the infant Jesus.

Zuñiga reflects on why few Mexican-Americans are putting up nacimientos anymore. “They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to be bothered to learn what the story is all about. You still see a lot of it in Mexico. It’s how I’ve raised my children. I can say that none of my kids are on drugs, and I’m real proud of that.”

Located at the corner of Sicard and Irving in Logan Heights, St. Anne Catholic Church is the diocese of San Diego’s poorest and least-known parish. Father Robert Nikliborc, 72, has been St. Anne’s pastor for 31 years (he tried retirement for seven months and was brought back because he missed the work and the parishioners missed him). At a Saturday-morning Mass for children studying catechism, Father Nikliborc talks about the origins of the nacimiento during his homily. “People ask me, where does this come from? Where did it start? It started with St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s. It’s been a Christmas tradition ever since. It’s our obligation to pass the good news on, just as St. Francis did.” After Communion, Maria, the church’s caretaker, kneels in front of the church’s official Nativity scene, hovering over a large statue of Jesus lying in a manger.

The children at Mass made their own nacimientos, a tradition Father Nikliborc says has always been part of parish life. The altar of St. Anne’s is surrounded by 33 miniature Nativity scenes, all handmade by children between the ages of 6 and 12. Some are as simple as drawings on poster board. Most are primitive models made from cardboard, covered with wrapping paper, magazine clippings, felt, grass, string, cotton, and other disposable items. Some of the figures are ceramic, but most are paper or soft clay. Prizes are given for the best nacimientos. First prize, a bicycle, went to Valentina Ramirez Huezo, aged 7. Atop her nacimiento is a letter written on a yellow piece of paper cut in the shape of a star: “Dear Baby Jesus, I am glad it is almost your birthday. Thank you very much for my house, food, and family. I’m very happy you were born so you can help us. I love baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph. Merry Christmas to all.” The figures are clay. The stable floor is made of pressed wood, and the roof is covered with contact paper with a brick print. Two small branches from a fir tree stand alone as trees in front of the stable.

Valentina’s cousin, Denise Huezo, aged 9, has a nacimiento made from cardboard, covered with red gift wrap. “It took me about two days to make it. We don’t have one at home anymore. We had one from a long time ago, but it kept falling down and stuff, so we had to throw it away. We couldn’t fix it.” Behind the Holy Family is a blue-crayoned background with a Star of David made entirely of Popsicle sticks. Intertwined through the star is a red heart made from a pipe cleaner. The infant Jesus is a tiny ceramic figurine; a construction-paper Mary, held up by tape, kneels before Him. St. Joseph is conspicuously absent.

Another nacimiento has a poem taped to its roof that reads: “Christmas is the miracle of Christ’s birth. The Virgin conceiving, miraculous and amazing. A star shining, angels praising, shepherds kneeling, throngs adoring, joy increasing, spirits soaring.”

Edgar Ramirez, 10, holds his nacimiento and explains its construction. “The stable is made from twigs from a tree. The grass is made out of string. The figures are hand-painted. I got them from Mexico. The star over the stable is tinfoil.”

Father Nikliborc knows Ruth Zuñiga as a parishioner and has seen her nacimiento many times. He was not aware, however, of her Christmas play. “We put one on this year at the church. The children did it for midnight Mass. We have a girl who is the parish queen, and we darken the church and she brings the baby Jesus up with one light shining on her. We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Spanish and English, and that’s how we start our midnight Mass. I call it ‘midnight Mass New York time,’ because we do it at nine o’clock!

“But I think these little nacimientos are really something. It takes some time for them to do it. These more elaborate ones are probably done with the help of Mama and Papa. Even the drawings — when I first started here, they were mostly drawings. I think this is good for the kids to realize that it’s Jesus’ birthday.”

The secularization of Christmas bothers Father Nikliborc, and he is proud of the Mexican culture that resists it. “For years, even now, they don’t wait for Santa Claus — they wait for the Niño Jesús, the baby Jesus. It’s His birthday, and that’s how they’ve been brought up. Most Mexicans don’t receive gifts at Christmastime. They receive gifts on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Most of them will be receiving gifts then. People outside of this parish adopt families within the parish and provide them with Christmas. I go around to a lot of homes to bless them, and there are a lot of nacimientos in the homes. When I was a kid in Chicago, we took the branches off the apple tree in the back yard and made our nacimiento — a big one — in the house, with three Christmas trees behind it with all-blue lights. Since there were nine of us in the family, there were nine sheep lined up. The black sheep got a stick for Christmas because he or she misbehaved!” He laughs. “We sang carols. We kept our nacimiento up until February 2, which is Candlemass Day. Only we called the nacimiento the ‘Christmas Crib.’ ”

On 38th Street, one block south of National Avenue, Enrique Elizalde’s modest home blends in with the rest of the houses. Like his neighbors, Elizalde, 48, has Christmas lights on his house, but unlike the others, he has a nacimiento in his yard. Part manufactured, part homemade, Elizalde’s nacimiento has statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a shelter of Christmas lights. A mechanical Santa Claus is perched near a saguaro cactus. A sleigh with reindeer is on the roof. A palm tree of Christmas lights sits in the middle of the yard, and an angel crowns the scene from the back fence. Though far less elaborate than Zuñiga’s, Elizalde’s nacimiento is no less inspired.

“I come from Mexicali, and I’ve lived here for 26 years, 12 at this house. In Mexicali, everybody has nacimientos, but this is the first time I’ve done it here. I consider that this is the best thing for a family to do. I have two daughters, a 4-year-old and a 22-year-old. I did this because I wanted to show my youngest daughter what Christmas really is about. I made the three kings and angel myself. The whole thing took me about 12 hours. I got the lumber for it out of the trash. I got the idea of a palm tree in a religious movie. I’m going to keep adding to it. I tried to make a camel but couldn’t finish it this time. But if you look over on the fence, you can see the lights in the outline of a horse. Come back next year and there will be even more!”

A truck driver, Elizalde has been out of work for a year. “Before, I was too busy, but this year I had time to do this. This is very common in Mexico, but here, all you see is Santa Claus. The real meaning of Christmas is that Jesus is coming. A lot of people have come by here and taken their hats off or made the sign of the cross.”

Several barrio residents recommend a nacimiento in the front yard of a house atop 36th Street hill at Franklin Avenue. On the left side of the front gate is an illuminated Nativity scene. To the right are illuminated figures of Santa Claus, Pooh Bear, snowmen, carolers, and angels. Thousands of lights surround the scene.

While the Latino population admires the display, the owner of the house is not Mexican-American. Pauline Green is African-American. “I’ve been here close to 20 years, and I’ve been putting it up ever since I first moved here. I have no idea how much I’ve spent over the years for this. I just go piece by piece. They got the knock-off stuff and markdowns after Christmas, and that’s when I pick up pieces like that. Then when Christmas comes, I put it up.”

A native of Arkansas, Green moved to San Diego in 1969. “I notice a lot of Mexicans coming around and stopping to look at the display. One year, they came by before I got started, and they wanted to know if I was going to be putting it up again. They said, ‘I come to see if you’re doing your yard,’ and I said, ‘Not yet. I’m getting started.’ It’s mostly anybody’s tradition that wants to do it. One year, a helicopter hovered over the yard and took pictures — I guess it was the news people. My niece saw my house on the news one time and said, ‘Hey, that’s Aunt Pauline’s house!’ People in Arkansas do this all over at Christmas.

“I was raised that way as a kid in the country. I’m a religious person. I used to go to Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, but they’ve closed down now, so I visit different ones. Mary, Joseph, and the baby — that’s everybody’s figures. Anybody can do this. Christmas means for me just like it means for the Mexicans: the holy baby Jesus was born. But nobody’s ever bothered my yard. They just love to look at it."

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