In the late 1960’s Juanita and Emilio Dominguez gave North Denver a great gift in their annual Las Posadas celebrations. Las Posadas means “The Inn,” in Spanish. For 9 nights before Christmas Eve, Juanita and Emilio dressed in full costume, including their daughter Zarife as Mary. Her brothers J. A. and Robbie alternately dressed as St. Joseph. They imported a live four legged burro from a working farm in Adams County to carry Mary while she searched for a room in the Inn on their trip to Bethlehem to be counted in Caesar’s census. In liturgical terms, Las Posadas is a novena, Latin for “nine” evenings in sequence. They would stop at 8 different homes in North Denver with refusals to the Holy Family until Christmas Eve.
Juanita would sit in the back of a pickup truck, seated on a large bale of straw, and play the accordion’s ancient melody to the Medieval Spanish song which the hundreds of people would sing as well as they knocked on the door of their home on Quitman Street near West 32nd Avenue. The residents never alerted the police department as they stayed mostly on city sidewalks. If the city would have known about this, they probably would have banned the celebrations.
“In el nombre del cielo os Pido posada ” “In the name of heaven, I ask of you lodging.” After several more verses, the innkeeper (Emilio) would sadly offer the following refrain, “Aqui no es meson. Here there is no room…” At this point, Mary and Joseph and the big furry burro and the hundreds of pilgrims from all over Denver move to the backyard where the Dominguez family served a full dinner crowned by Mexican hot chocolate. That’s hot chocolate with a cinnamon stick in the cup. I still have cinnamon with my hot chocolate because of the Mexican hot chocolate I enjoyed at my first Las Posadas.
On Christmas Eve, the novena ended by Joseph knocking on the door of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Fr. Patrick Valdez, the pastor, would open the door of the church singing, “Humildes peregrinos Jesus, Maria y Jose, el allma doy por ellos mi corazon tambien. Humble pilgrims, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give my soul for them and my heart as well.” The burro would enter the church, bringing Mary and Joseph to the altar, all pilgrims applauding their getting some room at the inn. Mary and Joseph gently place a statue of Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in the crib of the crèche just beside the altar. The burro exits happily out the north door to the church yard where he stayed during the 9 day novena.
As the Senator for their neighborhood and church I received a call of complaint about the burro staying in the church yard at Guadalupe. “Senator Gallagher, what do you think of the jackass staying in the church yard as Guadallupe? I just don’t want to see any more churches pick up this custom.” I tried to explain, the burro would only be in the neighborhood for nine days, during the novena. He had never heard of the word “novena.” He was not happy and living on the west side of Federal at that time, he was not sensitive to the tradition of Las Posadas. I mischievously bent the truth about the burro. I told him that this was “a new program which the city had started to keep weeds down, in the neighborhood and the city has a small herd of goats which can be used to keep weeds down. Are you interested?” The part about the goats is true. I invited this citizen to join us that evening. ” Introduce yourself to me and I will introduce you to Mary and Joseph.” I told him. I don’t believe he attended, or at least didn’t introduce himself. Oh, well, more Mexican hot chocolate for me.
After Emilio passed away and Juanita moved to an adobe farmhouse in Chama, Colorado, not far from San Luis in the Valley, the Las Posadas celebrations in North Denver ceased and no one has volunteered to bring this wonderful gift back to the neighborhood and the people of North Denver. Juanita initiated a celebration for San Luis while she was there. Gregorio Alcaro got a few people together for a procession near the Auraria Campus, but not in North Denver. I hope someone will take up the mantle and revive this remarkable Dominguez celebration.
The Las Posadas celebrations gave the people and the neighborhood a soul. Denver needs a soul and our whole nation needs a soul as well. We need an event which brings people together in a historic medieval moment. The Las Posadas engendered in the people and the neighborhood a beautiful event to which all in the neighborhood were invited and could truly enjoy. When we had the Las Posadas, the neighborhood did not have all the “fugly” developments we see in our North Denver blocks. Perhaps the medieval prayers put a hex on all the ugly developers who prey on our once beautiful and graceful neighborhood. Whenever I get hot chocolate at the various coffee shops around North Denver, this holiday time, I always add cinnamon and toast the Dominguez family in gratitude for the wonderfully unselfish and unifying gift they gave us. They asked us to open ourselves up to the beauty of legends around us and to enjoy them.
To echo my first sentence, in the name of heaven, I want to thank the Dominguez family for the great gift they gave us of Las Posadas, a gift you just can’t find in Cherry Hills Village.
The Honorable Dennis Gallagher is a former city auditor, city councilman, state senator and state representative. He’ll be sharing thoughts and stories from North Denver’s past and future in his reoccuring column in The Denver North Star.