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A royal gathering Hispanics celebrate Three Kings Day with joy, gift-giving

Solangeles Santana's face glows with pride as she talks about Three Kings Day -- a Christian holiday widely celebrated in Hispanic communities.

The 39-year-old Riverside woman remembers growing up in Puerto Rico, as far back as age 5, when she would leave out cookies and milk for the Three Wise Men and place grass out for their camels on the night of Jan. 5.

She was always thrilled when she awoke the next day on Three Kings Day, Jan. 6, and discovered her new toys and gifts, which replaced all the items she had left out the night before.

Sunday, Santana was among about 180 families attending the 23rd annual Three Kings Day celebration at D'Youville College on Buffalo's West Side, where they received toys for their children and food for their entire family.

"I think it's wonderful to see the Latino community getting together to do something positive," said Santana, a single mother of five who works as a human resources clerk.

"Every bit helps," she said. "It's hard, but this makes you aware that there are programs in the community to help you."

Sunday's celebration, meant to benefit needy families, was hosted by the Western New York Hispanics and Friends Civic Association in conjunction with the Hispanics Women's League and Hispanics United of Buffalo. The event -- headed by Andres Garcia; his wife, Ellen; and Mady-ly Russi -- was held in D'Youville College's Student Center at Porter and Fargo avenues.

Three Kings Day, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, is a gift-giving time for many Hispanic families, rather than Christmas.

"One of the reasons we do this is to maintain tradition and influence tradition," said Miguel Santos, one of the event organizers, who played the role of one of the three "kings."

"This is an important day in the Latin community and the Orthodox Christian Church."

The event featured a magician, face painting and three "kings" handing out candy canes to the children.

Each family also was given a big plastic bag filled with toys and a food voucher from Tops Market. A raffle also was held, giving the families a chance to win an array of items, including a television set, computer and a coffee maker.

Several groups and corporations helped raise about $6,500 for the event -- including the Western New York Holiday Partnership, which was the biggest financial contributor. The News Neediest Fund, one of the largest charity programs in Western New York, also was among several groups that helped collect toys for the event.

Leslie LaBorgne brought her four children to celebrate their culture. She is Native American, and her four children are half Hispanic.

"I wanted to bring them to show them what Three Kings Day is all about," said LaBorgne, who lives on the city's Lower West Side.

Her daughter Jalisa Rodriguez, 11, was smiling from ear to ear.

"It feels like Christmas because we get all this cool stuff," said the girl, as she cradled two stuffed animals, just some of the new toys she received.

"It's the biggest day of the year for me," said event Andres Garcia. "To me, it means a lot because of all the children. Seeing the look on their faces, makes my day."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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