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For immigrant families, a Mighty Writers Christmas fiesta lifts spirits after the hardest year | Mike Newall

It was a night for fear of ICE and deportation and family separation to be pushed aside. A fiesta, a Christmas party, a refuge.

Program manager Mario Meza (rear) plays guitar and Reyna Hernandez (kneeling) help the children sing for family and friends at the Christmas Party of the Mighty Writers El Futuro Branch on South Ninth Street.
Program manager Mario Meza (rear) plays guitar and Reyna Hernandez (kneeling) help the children sing for family and friends at the Christmas Party of the Mighty Writers El Futuro Branch on South Ninth Street.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

This much was clear, Miss Alma knew. They had to have a party. A Christmas fiesta, at the Mighty Writers El Futuro space on Ninth Street in the Italian Market. Las Posadas – the traditional Mexican celebration that reenacts the journey of Joseph and Mary as they search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Shelter.

There would be food and singing. The kids at El Futuro could share their writing and sing karaoke. Their parents, almost all of whom are undocumented immigrants, could do something they almost never get to do: Relax.

“It will be an antidepressant,” said Miss Alma, who in her day job is Alma Romero, proprietor with her husband of the fish shop next door to Mighty Writers. To the Latino community in South Philadelphia, she’s just Miss Alma. A leader. The woman to see about a problem, a job, a house. She’s been here 22 years, and is undocumented herself. From the shop next door, she hears and holds the community’s fears about ICE – La Migra – and the administration that dehumanizes them at every turn.

But this week, she was the woman to see about the fiesta.

Every few hours on Wednesday, wiping fish guts from her gloves, she’d run next door to make sure everything was just so. The Nativity display. The braided red and green balloons in the archway. Hours before the party was set to begin, there was still so much to do. And she popped her head in and yelled to Nelia Diaz, the El Futuro program director, and Mario Meza, the program manager, who all year have been shepherding kids and families through fear and confusion and anger.

They run the afterschool programs at El Futuro, where kids come to do their homework and write about anything but Trump and ICE, except that on their breaks the kids will tease someone with a bad grade, saying La Migra is going to come get you if you don’t do your homework. Like a bogeyman.

It’s the only way the younger kids can process what’s happening, said Meza.

“This is their way to express their fear,” he said.

For some, the holidays have become a way to express loneliness as well. Like Fernanda, who’s 11 and lives with her uncle, and walks home from the center three nights a week, 20 minutes in the dark, carrying schoolbooks written in a language she’s excitedly trying to learn. But her parents are back in Mexico, and when she saw the Las Posadas preparations, she remembered her grandmother’s Nativity scene, and her family’s punch – the best! – and her voice grew lower and lower.

Diaz and Meza run workshops with the older teens, too, who can process the poisonous rhetoric better – who get angry and dispirited when the conversation turns to politics, who worry that even in the land of opportunity, they are going to follow their parents into the same sleepless jobs. Meza and Diaz tell them there’s hope – scholarships, grants for immigrants, even undocumented ones.

And they offer workshops for the parents who are fearful but determined, for whom the news of raids and family separations overwhelms. And they don’t show up at the center for a while – and when they do, they talk about being afraid to walk the streets, or send their kids to school.

But this night was a night for all that to be pushed aside. A fiesta, a Christmas party, a refuge.

The kids came through the door, singing — a call-and-response with two children dressed as Mary and Joseph, asking to be let in. The innkeepers learn that Mary is carrying the Christ child. This is our home, they say. It’s not much, but we give it to you with an open heart.

And Miss Alma could not contain her joy as she led the children through singing and dancing.

In the front row, Ivonne, a housemaid and the mother of an 11-year-old girl named Sophie, smiled and swayed to the music. It had been such a hard year, she said. She had attended the El Futuro workshops, and talked to Sophie about the family separations at the border. She told her daughter it was OK to cry. But we have people here who care about us, she assured Sophie, and will fight for us.

Now, she wasn’t thinking about all that, as she prepared a plate of tamales for her daughter. She could not find the exact word in English for how she felt, but she knew what she was trying to say: pampered, spoiled, as if embraced by a loved one.

It was Christmas in Philadelphia, and she felt like she was home.