Dora Puerta still remembers going with her family on Christmas Eve to every home and church in Pereira, Colombia, to look at the elaborate nativity sets.
Puerta, her six siblings and their mother would banter over which one they liked most.
“But the one at our house was always the most beautiful,” said Puerta, 75, whose mother suffered a stroke and passed away when she was a little girl. “My mother put such love and care into building the nativity scene for us and she would get excited and call us over to help her set it up.”
After Puerta’s mother passed away, her father remarried, and Puerta’s stepmother kept all the nativity pieces stored away in boxes. They were eventually lost.
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When Puerta moved to Miami in the ’80s with her own family, she decided to honor the tradition her mother started. She began collecting figurines to set up what is now a larger-than-life nativity scene in her living room. The scene has expanded to include villages set in Biblical times, Victorian homes and Charles Dickens-era holiday villages. It occupies about 90 square feet and includes more than 1,000 figurines, from farm animals to townspeople to carolers and even a pig roasting over an open fire pit.
“It takes me three weeks to completely set it up,” said Puerta, whose husband helps her lay out the foundation for the project by setting up cinder blocks, wood planks and hurricane shutters to support it. “I use sawdust, gravel and moss as the ground floor for most of the villages to give it that lifelike look and feel.”
Puerta started her collection with a $450 purchase of three kings. Most of the figurines are handpainted in Italy and made by Fontanini. Prices range from $14.95 for a three-inch woman holding produce to a 70-inch ox retailing for $8,295.00.
“It’s hard gauging exactly how much money I’ve put into building this,” said Puerta, who said she started acquiring pieces almost 30 years ago. “But on average, I know that most of the figures of citizens that are six inches tall are about $25 each and the ones that are two inches tall are about $12.”
Puerta buys most of her pieces at Mon Bien Ami, a religious gift store on West Flagler Street.
“Dora has been coming to our store to buy Fontani pieces for her nativity display for about 35 years,” said Elia Blanco, co-owner of the shop with her husband, Jose Blanco. “In that time, we’ve established a rapport, and I always help her pick out pieces and show her the new ones we have in stock.”
Blanco’s store has been an authorized retailer of Fontanini’s polymer figurines since 1980.
“Every piece has a story, and our family business has allowed us to share those stories with other families that truly enjoy them,” she said. “Like Dora’s.”
“When people come to the house and they see my mother’s nativity scene they fall in love with it,” said Patricia Puerta, one of Puerta’s three daughters.
“A friend came over the other day and he immediately asked if he could take a picture of it with his cell phone,” she added. “He started asking questions about where my mom got the pieces for it and seemed fascinated by the whole thing.”
Not all of the pieces are bought, however. Puerta points to the “sky” on the wall.
“Those were brown bags we got from the supermarket and my husband and grandson texturized them and spray painted them blue to create backdrop scenery.”
A cloth backdrop hangs on the adjacent wall. Hand-painted by the niece of her husband in Colombia, it features camels resting in a biblical-era town. It was made it to order and mailed it to her in Miami.
Puerta created a “swan lake” by using a plastic party platter and coloring it blue. She set small figures of swans on the surface to make it look as if they were swimming.
And each figurine tells a story.
“Look, look at this one. She’s mixing a cauldron because she’s making a meal,” said Puerta. “That other one is holding those ceramic jugs because she has to go to the well to get water.”
When her great-grandson, who just turned 3, comes over for the holidays, she plans to do what her mother did — spin a story about the different figurines and talk about baby Jesus.
“That’s what I most enjoy about doing this,” she said. “Keeping the tradition that my mother started alive, keeping my family together and involved in something special.”