On the night of Víspera de Reyes, Jan. 5, Puerto Rican children go outside with their old shoe boxes. They yank the grass out of the ground and collect it in their boxes.
Once the boxes look semi-full with greenery, the parents usher them inside. The children carefully place their grass boxes underneath the tree. In the morning, they’ll wake up with empty boxes, a little bit of a mess of grass and their gifts from the kings.
Día de Reyes, also known as Three Kings Day, is the Hispanic celebration of the Epiphany, observed on Jan. 6. It commemorates the three magical kings that visited baby Jesus on the day of his birth. The kings – Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar – followed the North Star to find baby Jesus and give him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Traditions throughout Latin America and Spain vary significantly, and each country has its own customs and cultural significance regarding the holiday. Puerto Rican children leave grass for the camels underneath the tree. Other children in Hispanic countries leave hay or candy next to their beds instead.
Every year just before our winter break at my Catholic private elementary/middle school in Puerto Rico, the Three Kings would visit and give us toys. Men dressing up as the Kings, visiting places and giving gifts is a common occurrence.
Puerto Rico celebrates both Christmas and Día de Reyes. The longest holiday season (as some people on the internet call it) ends on Las Fiestas de San Sebastián in mid-January.
Las Fiestas is the biggest celebration for Puerto Ricans on the island. The whole city of Old San Juan is packed with people walking, drinking, eating, dancing and buying art from artisans on the street.
The celebration lasts four days, starting on Thursday and ending on Sunday. The mornings are devoted to family time, looking at art, walking around under the scorching sun and eating. While the nights are for your friends, for dancing and of course, drinking.
As I grew up, I became less and less interested in Día de Reyes. You could blame teenage rebellion and not caring about anything that was deemed “uncool” — but maybe it’s bigger than that. I thought anything that had to do with Puerto Rico was lame. I hated our books, our movies and our music. I wanted to leave it all behind.
That’s how colonialism gets you. It tricks you into thinking the white power is better. It forces you to reject your culture, your traditions and everything that makes you unique in order to blend in.
But let’s not forget that Día de Reyes is also a product of colonialism. The Spanish conquered and killed Taínos, the native population in Borinquen, and renamed the island to signify what we were to them — a port filled with riches.
Día de Reyes is a cultural tradition that Puerto Rico has embraced and made its own just like every other country in Latin America. It’s both a product of colonialism and the fight against it.
I moved to the U.S. three years ago, and ever since I’ve been trying to cling to every last piece of my island. Most people here don’t know about Día de Reyes, so I tell them about it, and Las Fiestas de San Sebastián too. It’s important to talk about and embrace our culture in the eyes of the rest of the world, to remind them that we won’t disappear quietly.
“Los Cantares de Navidad” by Trio Vegabajeño was the last song in Bad Bunny’s new album. When I first heard the song, I was kind of turned off by it. The traditional Puerto Rican music is something my parents like, not me.
That was my first instinct — to completely disregard it as “old people music.” But Bad Bunny used his insane stardom and musical influence to introduce his audience to his culture, his hometown.
There was a lot of discourse on Twitter from people from other Latin American countries about what the song was, and that it sounded like music from Venezuela or Colombia. That sound couldn’t be more Puerto Rican, and the fact that a lot of people don’t know that is depressing.
I grew up with that music. I used to roll my eyes at those songs. I sang to them at Christmas events. He couldn’t have chosen a better song to end the album.
I’m glad that Bad Bunny and other artists like him are taking advantage of their influence to showcase their culture and traditions.
This is something we can all do, no matter how small our influence may be. Sharing what makes us unique will never go out of style, and there’s always going to be someone that relates to your experience.