Many say it takes a village to raise a child. For thousands of families across Miami, nacimientos, or handmade miniature villages that celebrate the holiday season, are a defining part of Christmas celebrations.
For nearly all of my young life, the nacimiento was a prominent feature in my home every holiday season. Each year, my grandmother Socorrro, or Mama Coco as we call her, would create a sweeping miniaturized Christmas neighborhood using thousands of decorations that together engulfed the dining room every year. The Holy Family loomed large over the village, which was populated by everything from ceramic mom-and-pop stores to animatronic Santas to diminutive denizens.
The construction of each year’s nacimiento is no small feat. It requires weeks of planning and execution. Year-round, Mama Coco scours Christmas shops and department stores for potential additions to her seemingly endless supply of holiday paraphernalia. Immediately after Halloween, dozens of boxes in every size would come out of storage and their contents be unwrapped to allow for careful final selection. The set-up itself would take no less than two weeks, with my grandmother working around the clock staging the village to her liking to ensure its debut at Thanksgiving dinner.
There’s no doubt that my grandmother is proud of her creation every year; when family, friends and neighbors come to gawk at her labor of love, she can hardly contain her excitement. But for some reason I had never questioned her reasons for dedicating weeks to this project, until I discovered she would not be doing her typical room-filling nacimiento this year.
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When my mother’s family came to Miami from Nicaragua on Dec. 8, 1979, all they had was each other and the few possessions that could fit into their suitcases. While Miami was as close to home as one could find in the United States at the time, they still were strangers in a new land, forced to rebuild their lives.
While reconstructing their existence in a new country proved overwhelming, their December arrival ensured that they would be able to celebrate Christmas, a familiar holiday that crossed borders and united a common faith.
Nine years after arriving here, my grandfather Adolfo passed away unexpectedly. My grandmother was devastated. He worked tirelessly to provide for his wife and five children and was as loyal a companion as one could hope for. At the time, their family finally was making inroads in the community and began laying the foundations for their future as their children began to come of age and their roots in the community began to grow. Because of his untimely death, he would miss the birth of his first granddaughter, my sister Amanda, by just a few days.
The Christmas of 1988 would be the first Christmas my grandfather Adolfo would miss, having passed away just weeks before. As a way to honor him and to bring hope for our family’s future, Mama Coco began her nacimiento tradition, with its first incarnation being a modest nativity scene underneath the Christmas tree. She learned the tradition from my great-grandmother, who would create a more modest one in Nicaragua.
Even when my grandmother was diagnosed with stomach cancer 20 years ago, nothing would deter her from making sure the nacimiento was on display. It wasn’t just something that she would look forward to each year, it’s something that gave her a sense of purpose and hope for the future.
Now that the nacimiento has not returned in its usual state this year (a temporary hiatus due to an injury), I’ve had time to reflect on the villages she’s built in the past.
It never occurred to me that the nacimiento often grew each year in part because of the continued prosperity of our family in Miami and our growing connection to the city. It also reflects the tireless efforts that my grandparents and parents made to make a home for us here.
In many ways, the nacimientos that go up during this time mirror the efforts of first- and second-generation families that have worked for years to build roots in this community. Like the nacimiento, our community is made up of countless parts and required a great deal of effort and patience to build — but the result is beautiful.