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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.

bout 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.

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