In long robes and accompanied by an angel, modern-day versions of Mary and Joseph, parents of the yet-unborn Jesus, beseeched residents of Palo Alto's Buena Vista Mobile Home Park for a place to stay on Sunday evening, Dec. 16.
Saul Bracamontes (Joseph) and Cory Gaytan (Mary) were following a centuries-old tradition as they wandered among the prefabricated homes, twinkling with holiday lights, looking for a place to rest their weary heads.
The Pedir Posada, or "asking for shelter," was started by Spanish missionaries in the U.S. during the 16th century. Designed to help native peoples convert to the Christian faith, it is practiced throughout Latin America today on the first day of Advent, according to the Knights of Columbus organization.
A combination of prayer, pageantry and celebration, the posada celebrates food, faith and joy. But Sunday's event -- the mobile-home park's first -- could also have been its last. Residents face losing their homes at the 86-year-old trailer park.
Buena Vista is an enclave of 115 mobile homes and 12 studio apartments behind a strip mall at 3980 El Camino Real and Los Robles Avenue. In September, the property owner announced that the land might be sold. Five days before the posada, residents met with Joe Jisser, whose family owns Buena Vista, and San Mateo development firm Prometheus, who outlined a process for closing down the park and developing a relocation plan for the nearly 400 residents.
Buena Vista could close by early 2014, Jisser said. Prometheus is proposing to build 180 high-end apartments.
A crowd of nearly 100 people, ranging from city firefighters to residents of surrounding neighborhoods, joined the holy couple, following them through the mobile-home park's streets with lit candles. The procession was both holiday event and political statement, as several residents donned "Save Our Homes" T-shirts.
Colorful paper flags, tinsel and holiday decorations strung across the alleyways fluttered in the gentle wind that proceeded an incoming storm. Greeters welcomed nearly 80 visitors from other neighborhoods, including Ventura, Greenmeadow and College Terrace. Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Councilwoman Karen Holman also attended.
Resident and greeter Melody Cheney said the posada was Buena Vista residents' way of thanking people for their support over the years.
The event offered a chance for outsiders to explore the fenced-off community, which many neighboring residents have passed by but in which few have entered, they said.
Barron Park Association board member Gwen Luce said she had never visited Buena Vista, even though her son lived there for a short time.
"I didn't realize there was such a strong community," she said, adding that she found the park was clean and orderly.
On Sunday, Luce and others followed the Joseph and Mary as they stopped at mobile home number 32. While one group of singers stood outside and asked for shelter, others inside responded by turning the couple away to the rattle of a tambourine:
"In the name of Heaven
Please give us some shelter,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife ..."
"You are not at an inn
So keep on your way
For I cannot open
you might be a rogue.
"You can keep on walking
And do stop knocking
For if I get angry
I will beat you badly ..."
The crowd raised their candles and prayed for the Virgin of Guadalupe to protect the children. The procession flowed past inflated snowmen and blinking lights. They stopped at trailer space 24 -- the second "inn." The song was accompanied by a strumming guitar:
"Please show us some mercy;
Do grant us this favor,
For the God of heaven
will be sure to repay you.
"We are very tired
Came from Nazareth
Joseph is my name
Carpenter by trade ..."
"I don't care for the name," came the reply.
"Let me go to sleep,
because as I told you
I won't open to thee ... "
The group eventually arrived at the end of a row of trailers, where a plastic tent decorated as a cattle stall had been painted with images of the holy family and scenes from the birth of Christ. A baby Jesus lay in a manger surrounded by straw. Finally, Mary and Joseph found shelter and a home for the night.
The posada continued with hundreds of tamales, deep pots of red and green posole stew, tostadas, punch, hot coffee and pan dulce. Children laughed and ran amid cascading treats that dropped from a burst pinata.
Lynnie Melena, Barron Park Association president, said she had always stayed away from Buena Vista, largely because it was walled off by a wooden fence. It did not seem an accessible place to drive through as one might on other neighborhood streets, she said.
"It's always just been here. It hasn't been positive or negative; it's just been 'this place,'" she said.
The Barron Park Association hasn't taken a position on Buena Vista's survival; Melena said the association is made up of many people who do not share similar views. But the association might decide to make the park a topic for discussion at a community meeting, she said.
As the crowd thinned, residents danced to the pulses of folkloric music. Some grabbed the hands of reluctant outsiders and drew them into the crowd. Soon, they were caught up in the dance.
Buena Vista resident Blanca Fonseca reflected on the importance of the neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood sticking together. She pointed to a small trailer across the way from the manger. A man with schizophrenia lives there, and residents are helping him with his sickness, she said. Fonseca and others bring the man food, water and other supplies.
She pointed to another small trailer several doors down. Its windows were among the few that were dark.
"The man is in bed. He doesn't stand up anymore, but we help him; we help to dress him," she said.