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Church Shares Caribbean Culture to Build Local Connections

A gathering at Wayman AME Church on West Olive Street in Bloomington was more than a service. It was a Latin American celebration of traditions associated with the feast of the Epiphany.

“We are a church in the heart of the community with a heart for the community, and we want there to be unity in the community and we want this to be an open space for that and we’re going to continue to keep our doors open to the community,” the Rev. Dr. Brigitte A. Black said about the program, "Caribbean Cultural Connections: From Christmas to the Three Wise Men."

The service began Friday evening with church member Ky Ajayi and his daughter Lara’s Caribbean-flavored drum call, which referenced the culture of three islands whose traditions were highlighted: Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Attendees then sang the traditional spiritual hymn “Go Tell it On the Mountain."

For the next hymn, organizers added non-traditional elements. Agape dance troupe Director Lyndetta Alsberry told those in the pews about specific movements that went with the lyrics.

Young girl stands behind a  large set of bongos next to a man, her dad, seated with another bongo between his knees.
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Laura and Ky Ajayi beat bongos as part of the drum call for the start of the Caribbean celebration.

The evening’s featured speaker was Jessie Dixon-Montgomery, an associate professor of Hispanic studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, who said for 30 years Cubans could not celebrate Christmas or the feast of Epiphany usually on Jan. 6. It marks the visit by three kings to bring gifts to the Christ child.

“Los Reyes Magos, the three wise men, who traditionally visited Cuba did not come bearing gifts because of the government of Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 which abolished all religious holidays since they were against Communist principles,” said Dixon-Montgomery.

Dixon-Montgomery said the ban on religious celebrations changed after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba but that children now mostly receive toys from charities because so many live in poverty.

In the Dominican Republic, Christmas has become a bigger celebration as ex pats who fled the revolution and settled in New York and New Jersey returned to the region with a more American emphasis on gifts and a big Christmas Eve dinner.

“Family members gather together and have great Dominican food, including the roast suckling pig and pastelles which are like tamales, Mexican tamales, but they are not made out of a corn base. It’s usually plantains or it could be yam or it could be yucca,” she explained.

Dominican children do not receive gifts until the Day of the Kings on Jan. 5. Children put water and grass under the Christmas tree before bed for the camels as the Three Kings pass in the night.

In Puerto Rico, the Christmas season begins in late November with parrandas, parades and carolers singing mostly secular songs as they travel their neighborhood. Dixon-Montgomery said the season ends with a big parade and the three wise men traveling the island, handing out gifts to children.

Part Of Your Identity

Among those attending the Caribbean Cultural Connections service was Jenn Carrillo, a Bloomington City Council member who was born and raised in Mexico City. She migrated to the U.S. with her family as a child.

Carrillo said preserving traditions helps immigrants maintain a cultural identity and connection to their roots.

Women in front of a church altar gestures with her hands
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Bloomington City Council member Jenn Carrillo is a native of Mexico City and said often immigrants have to abandon traditions to assimilate.

“The wisdom, the magic and the rituals of our ancestors are an essential part of who we are, an essential part of our identities, and they are the things that help us make friends into family members, houses into homes, and cities and towns into real communities,” she shared.

Carrillo thanked church leaders for providing a space to share traditions which she says too often immigrants are forced to abandon when they come to the United States.

“Not only do we have to leave our ancestral lands and our families, but we also have to give up parts of ourselves to be able to have a life here. And so it is important that we move with intention and that create spaces such as this one to begin to share with one another so that we can make ourselves and each other whole in community. I want to encourage us to keep doing this,” she said.

Dixon-Montgomery agreed events such as the Cultural Connections celebration help build important connections. 

“I think we’re at a point now where we feel people are so different. They’re nothing like us. We don’t want anything to do with them. They look different. They talk differently. And so I think we need to find some connection between,” said Dixon-Montgomery.

Dixon-Montgomery has only been in Bloomington-Normal for four months, arriving from Galesburg where she taught at Knox College. She said while it has been a mostly welcoming community, some people are surprised to learn she has experienced subtle racism.

“If they’ve never experienced it they think, ‘Things have gotten better. They’re not like they used to be in the 60s,' and someone told me that. And then when I started recounting personal incidents they said, 'OK, we see the division, we see that people are not quite as happy as we thought they should be,’” she shared.

Dixon-Montgomery added, “It’s not that I’ve experienced big things. I’ve experienced some subtle things that make you say, ‘People still aren’t coming together. People are still afraid and don’t know one another and they’re still afraid to reach out.’”

The longtime teacher said she embraces any opportunity to raise cultural awareness, even when it comes to Spanish language.

“There is also a tendency in our community to label any Spanish speaker either Spanish or Mexican, and I want people to know there are a lot of Spanish speakers in 22 countries, including the United States. There are a lot all over the world and they bring valuable traditions and valuable values to the pool,” she said.

She said sharing cultural traditions and spreading knowledge locally can help break down some walls rather than, as she put it, “building walls we don’t know exist.”

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.