Sophie is a high school junior in the STEM Academy at Madison College. Stepping out…
I remember being overwhelmed by smells and looking up to see locals looking down at the crowd from their lit-up balconies. The 500-year-old architecture and historic cobblestone streets were comically and tastefully juxtaposed with the Coca-Cola-themed parade and a local band doing remixes of recent pop songs. Our group balanced our feet on street curbs and formed a chain link so as not to lose each other. But the most perplexing thing about the night of the festival wasn’t the feeling of sweat falling from my forehead in the middle of January, or tripping over tortilla boxes while doing some version of the electric slide with a group of strangers; it was the paradox of the expressed grief and hopelessness of those we talked to about Puerto Rico’s current political status contrasted with the four-day Epiphany celebration hosted in Old San Juan. I can’t speak for the residents, but I think to them, the festival was the embodiment of using joy as resistance and celebration as catharsis.
This celebration was explained to me as an annual event hosted every year as one of the biggest national festivals in Puerto Rico. We were told to prepare for traffic and long waits if we decided to go, and both promises were delivered. Three Kings Day and Epiphany are holidays that are largely the most celebrated in predominantly Catholic countries as a bookend to the Christmas season. The celebrations often align with when many think was the day that the Three Magi — foreigners in a country unfamiliar to them, using a star as a compass — presented Baby Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In Puerto Rico, the Twelve Days of Christmas would end almost a month after many in the rest of the world had put away their holiday decorations and gone back to work. It would seem as though history was repeating itself — except this time, we were the foreigners, and our star was a GPS telling us to take illegal left turns.
It seems counterintuitive that residents of Puerto Rico would be in a celebrating mood, given the island’s recent hurricane turmoil that our group was there to assist with, the political schisms in both local and international affairs, and the US Census reporting in the past year that over 40 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line. But Puerto Rican flags flew, thousands of residents showed up to dance and hear music without inhibitions, and families chose to spend time with each other on a Thursday night despite many having work the next morning and many miles to drive. Our group partook — we were celebrating our work week, my gratitude to be able to meet up with my friend Claudia that evening, and just enjoying each other’s company.
I generally don’t like to force “takeaways” from experiences like these, but for me, this evening was a reminder to not look for cues to celebrate life and community. The time for joy is now; not sometime in the distant future when we think our difficult circumstances will go away. The entire area of Puerto Rico we were staying in was full of color, community, and nature — all things we can celebrate today as a reminder of the importance of radical hope.
Madelyn Peppard is a senior studying community and nonprofit leadership.
Read the rest of the BWAP 2023 reflections:
Laura Hyde ~ “Unexpected Connections”
Lauren Pettis ~ “From Learning to Living”
Lydia Larsen ~ “The Cost of Paradise”
Aurora Kuelbs ~ “Deep Roots”
Mei Hippe ~ “Deep Love”
Kevin Lee ~ “What the Great Commission Didn’t Tell Me”
Madelyn Peppard ~ “Three Kings Day, a Four-Day Celebration”
Learn more about our partners for BWAP 2023: