A little girl was awed and overwhelmed with her encounter with the Three Kings.

                            Story and Photographs By John Murray

    Three Kings Day was a magical time for Victor Lopez Jr. when he was a child in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.

   “The night before we’d go outside and get grass to put in a shoe box, if you were lucky enough to have a shoe box,” Lopez said. “Then we’d hide the grass, a cup of milk, and one or two cookies under our bed, or in the corner of our room. In the morning we’d rush to our spot and find toys. We didn’t get presents from Santa Claus, we got them from the Three Kings.”

   The grass was for the camels and the milk was for the three kings. “I really believed in the Three Kings,” Lopez said. “These are great memories for me.”

   Now Victor Lopez is the executive director of the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury and organizes a Three Kings Day celebration every year in the River-Baldwin Recreation Center in the South End of Waterbury. This past Saturday, January 6th, two hundred children received a bag of presents from the Three Kings seated at the north end of the recreation center’s basketball court.

After a traditional meal of rice and beans and roasted chicken, the children gathered in front of the Three Kings to receive their presents inside the River-Baldwin Recreation Center..

The children were anxious and excited as they were called up one by one to receive their gifts.

Making this year’s celebration especially significant was that 60% of the children were refugees from the hurricane that battered Puerto Rico last September. “The kids loved it,” Lopez said. “The families thought they’d left Three Kings Day when they left Puerto Rico, and were excited to sign up for our celebration.”

   According to trippsavvy website, “ In Puerto Rico on Three Kings Day you expect parades and festivals. It’s a time of family gatherings and parties with a more spiritual bent. Old San Juan throws an annual festival at the Luis Muñoz Marín Park with live music, food and drink, with free gifts given out to lucky kids. The highlight of the day occurs when the Three Kings come walking into town.

The gifts were obtained by a mix of toy and cash donations to the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury.

Sacred Heart teacher Chris Ortiz was one of the Three Kings.

Cruz Torres was another one of the Three Kings.

The unbridled joy of a child receiving a gift on Three Kings Day.

   The Three Kings in Puerto Rico come from Juana Díaz, a small town in the south of the island that is the hometown of the Magi. A statue of the Three Kings greets you when you enter Juana Diaz. According to Christian tradition, Three Kings Day was the day that Melchior (known as Melchor in Spanish), Caspar (Gaspar), and Balthasar (Baltasar) came to visit the baby Jesus and brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Spanish Christmas tradition of Los Reyes Magos is celebrated in Puerto Rico and throughout the Latin World.

   The Hispanic Coalition has celebrated Three Kings Day for 15 years. According to Lopez the first few years were low key as the non-profit was housed in a small office on Field Street. ‘”Bags were set up for kids and the families would come by one by one to pick up the presents,” Lopez said. “Now we get everyone together and have Three Kings give out the presents directly to the kids.”

   Lopez collects toys from Toys For Tots, safe Haven DCF, and uses cash donations to purchase toys. Lee Lynd Manufacturing at 546 South Main Street donated $500 this year. ‘We have very limited sponsors helping with Three Kings Day,” Lopez said, “and it’s getting harder and harder to pull off, but when you see the joy and happiness on the children’s faces, it makes all the work worth it.”

Singer Hector Vidal sang several songs to entertain the families as they waited for the Three Kings to arrive.

Five students were honored with scholarships from the Hispanic Coalition in 2017 and when the annual Coqui Award banquet was postponed, they never received their public acknowledgement, and citations from the State of Connecticut. Four of the students showed up at Three Kings Day to receive their awards from Maritza Acosta-Gay, the chairperson of the board of the Hispanic Coalition.

Victor Lopez Jr. is the executive director of the Hispanic Coalition and fondly remembers celebrating Three Kings Day back in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, where he spent the first 14 years of his life.

State Representaive Geraldo Reyes Jr., left, was the third king at the celebration, and presented the final gift to a young boy as Chris Ortiz and Cruz Torres looked on.

Geraldo Reyes’s family is from Juana Diaz, the home of the Three Kings in Puerto Rico, so it was fitting he donned the crown and full beard to hand out presents to the children, many who were recent refugees from Hurricane Maria. Reyes is pictured here with his colleague at the state legislature, State Senator Joan Hartley.

Many of the children at the Three Kings Day celebration lost all their clothes and toys in September when Hurricane Maria clobbered the island. There are now almost 300 families from Puerto Rico that have relocated to Waterbury to get their children back in school and begin to stabilize their lives. For many, the celebration Saturday afternoon was one of the few sources of joy they’d experienced in the past three months.