East Harlem became a dance floor for the annual Three Kings Day parade presented by El Museo del Barrio, as thousands took to the streets on Friday to celebrate for the first time in three years.
Leading the parade was Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was flanked by all of the festivities’ signature fixtures. Dancers, musicians, puppets and even live camels flooded the road behind her as the procession snaked through El Barrio.
For thousands of New Yorkers of Latin American and Caribbean descent who practice Christianity and Catholicism, Three Kings Day — or El Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos — is the last hurrah for Christmastime. As the name implies, it commemorates the biblical day when three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Across Latin America and its diaspora, that translates to gifts for the little ones and plenty of partying among the adults.
Kids sometimes leave grass out for the camels that the three kings rode in on, in exchange for gifts. In other cultures, kids leave their shoes out for a similar reason. It’s a second, Latin American Christmas.
El Museo’s Three Kings Day celebration is inextricably linked to its roots as a Puerto Rican cultural hub. Giant papier-mâché puppets represent each of the three wise men – Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar – and are inspired by the culture of the Indigenous people of the Caribbean islands. Throughout the festivities, revelers wave Puerto Rican flags, sing typical holiday carols from the island, and play güiros and accordions for hours on end.
El Museo chose a mental health theme for the celebration’s return to the neighborhood. The ceremonies honored New Yorkers who have pushed the field forward. Melanie Santos, a holistic wellness educator from Brooklyn, was among the many honorees. Wrapped in the heavy velvet of her parade costume, she walked alongside her daughter, Ava, and her husband.
In Santos’ mind, mental health and celebration are intimately linked, especially given the still-looming specter of COVID-19. She spent much of the pandemic leading mental health workshops and ensuring the community found ways to “hold each other during a time that was so very, very difficult.”
“This almost feels like a graduation of sorts, being able to be with everybody in one room,” Santos said.
The parade is a feast of sights and sounds for the many kids marching in it or watching from the sidelines. And in the mind of Sharon Moreno, a performer with the dance troupe Fruto Ancestral, childlike glee is what it’s all about.
“It makes me feel like a kid again,” Moreno said while dancing in the parade. A nearby crowd of elementary school students immediately broke out into cheers.