Stella Pope Duarte

The star that followed El Niño

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By Stella Pope Duarte

Christmas Eve mass at St. Anthony’s Church started solemnly, as priests and altar boys dressed in red-and-white robes filed in while the choir sang from the balcony, and the huge organ with its shiny brass pipes filled the church with rich, vibrant sounds. “En Belén a media noche un niñito nacerá – in Bethlehem, at midnight, a child is to be born. We stared at people across the aisle, and they looked back at us. Together we created a small sea of brown faces, dressed in our Christmas finery, ready to greet El Niño, the Christ Child.

My sister Lupita and I sat next to my mother on a wooden pew my father had helped build, the wood, smooth and shiny. My mother arranged us, one on her right side, the other on her left.

“So you won’t talk,” she said, “and don’t you dare laugh. Look, there’s El Niño, trying to get some rest.”

Once my mother directed us not to laugh, it was all we wanted to do. We struggled not to laugh when a baby burped too loud, or someone fell to their knees on the wooden floor with a plop because they’d forgotten to pull out the kneeler.

I looked at the altar. I could barely make out the figure of a doll dressed in a white garment, lying in a manger, hewn of pine wood and filled with real hay, while Mary and Joseph, two ceramic figures, knelt nearby.

“How can He sleep with all this noise?” I asked my mother.

“Never mind about that. He’s God. He can do anything.”

At the end of the services, men, women and children moved in procession down the center aisle, waiting their turn to kneel before the simple manger and tell El Niño how happy we were to have him at St. Anthony’s. We thanked Him for being like one of us, not rich and bossy and disappointed with our failures, but an infant happy with a lowly manger who needed only to be fed and changed and carried about. Being poor ourselves, we understood His plight. But unlike the Three Kings, we had nothing to offer except ourselves.

After mass, we crowded into the basement around makeshift tables set with plastic Christmas tablecloths. My father bought us menudo, which we spiced up with green onions, chili, fresh cilantro and a squirt of lemon juice. Then we ate tamales, warm and tucked in moist cornhusks, and pan dulce, crusty and sweet.  We drank cups of Mexican hot chocolate, champurrado, fit for Moctezuma’s own table.

By the time it was all over, Lupita and I had played with several other children, running up and down the broad steps of the church until our cheeks were bright red and we were sweating, although the night was cold. At the top of the stairs, I peered through the big, wooden doors to the altar, and wondered about all the trouble El Niño had encountered being born in a stable. Now the church was his home, old, wondrous and filled with flickering candles and statues of saints wearing festive garments. The church bell rang as we made our way back to the car. I looked up at the dark sky and pointed to the bright North Star overhead.

“Look,” I said to Lupita, “there’s the star of Bethlehem!” And she believed me because she was younger than I was, and it was Christmas, and we had seen El Niño resting peacefully in his humble manger. It was only right that the star of Bethlehem had followed Him to St. Anthony’s Church where the poor were never turned away.

Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her writing career  in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Her work has won awards and honors nationwide.

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