Around 120 people filled the Rome Civic Center Saturday afternoon for the 23rd annual Fiesta de los Reyes Magos.
The festival marks the Epiphany — when the wise men in the Bible arrived at Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus — and the local event has always been organized by the Angel Express Network, with plenty of help from the community.
“I just felt they need to feel welcome,” recalled Janet Baltzer, the director of Angel Express, of the event’s origin.
She had wanted to establish a relationship with Rome’s Hispanic community, something she was helped with by local pastor Jorge Romero.
The two had served on the human relations committee for the city, and Baltzer said she almost immediately approached Romero to find a way to foster cooperation with the Hispanic community and assist some of its economically disadvantaged kids and families. The two along with the help of a group of volunteers were able to put on the first celebration at an area church, with around 25 kids attending.
As the celebration, which aims to celebrate diversity, has continued to grow over the years, there have been as many as 200 to 300 people attend. The families invited to attend are recommended by school counselors, ESL teachers and others who work in the Hispanic community.
Food is provided, through donations or discounts from local businesses, gifts for kids are raffled off, and clothes and books are given away.
Leticia Gonzalez, who works with Spanish-speaking students and families at Anna K. Davie Elementary, said though attendees may come from different Latin American countries, the culture is the same, as is the celebration of this particular holiday.
It’s important, Gonzalez said, for Hispanic culture to be shared with the community, to promote understanding and unity. Though they are far away from their countries of origin, she continued, families can still be close to their culture, which also needs to be passed down to their kids.
In a time of uncertainty for Hispanic families, as debate over immigration continues in Congress, Baltzer said attending the event in a comforting environment and finding enjoyment is especially important.
“Our country is great because we have many people from different backgrounds that contribute to our fabric,” she said.