The children came for the toys, the games and the music, but their parents brought them for something more - their culture.
More than 250 people gathered at Mission Hill Church yesterday for the 17th annual Sociedad Latina Three Kings Day celebration.
"This is one of the only organizations that is keeping our tradition alive," said Mercedes Paulino, a native of the Dominican Republic who has brought her daughters to the event for the past several years. "This is tradition; it's their culture."
While Christmas is the big day here, in most of Latin America, it's Three Kings Day that gets top billing. Celebrated on Jan. 6, the day commemorates the Biblical story of the three kings who followed the star of Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Christ child.
"We put out cookies for the three kings, just like Santa Claus," said Ana Gonzales, a Roxbury mother who brought her three children to the event. "In the morning, the children get toys."
Families were treated to breakfast, music and dance performances, as well as a play dramatizing the story of the Three Kings.
Sociedad Latina also uses the draw of the holiday to do outreach and build community awareness. Past events have focused on workforce development and self-help; this year's theme was health. While their children played games and danced, parents attended seminars on nutrition, healthy cooking, and yoga.
"I loved it; they have me hooked," said Guillermina Lugo, who took the day off from work to take her two children to the event. "I'm gaining weight . . . we all need to learn more."
With obesity rates among Latino and African-American children rising, the organization has been working year-round to educate families about making good food choices, cooking healthier, and being more active, Alexandra Oliver-Davila, executive director said.
The group organizes dance teams for children and holds cooking classes that take a healthier approach to traditional Latin cooking. Group members are lobbying city hall to change the city's sign code to reduce the number of advertisements for junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes.
"Up and down Tremont Street, it's all junk food," Oliver-Davila said. "There's not a lot of family restaurants, the stores don't sell fresh produce . . . we'd like to work with the businesses that are here to change that."
The group kicked off their "Healthy Mission Hill", a partnership with Longwood medical area institutions and community organizations an effort that will gather information about residents' health needs and develop new programming for the community.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who stopped by the event, said he's pleased by the efforts in Mission Hill.
"It's people coming together," he said. "When you talk about health, people think about just the health of the body; but it's also about the health of the business community and the environment."