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Sadness at a celebration; Three Kings Day, a 27-year local tradition, losing the leadership that makes it happen each year

Ellen Garcia, her eyes wet with tears, looked at the packed room, crammed with 300 people, most of them young children, and declared it a "very sad" day.

Normally, a big crowd would be cause for celebration, a testament to the hard work of Garcia and others.

But on this Sunday, there was talk that this year's 27th annual Three Kings Day might by the last.

"This is it," said Garcia, wiping the wetness from her cheeks. "It's been a real labor of love to do this."

No one is declaring the celebration, a staple of the local holiday landscape for decades, dead. But the group and people who pull it off each year are stepping aside.

"There's hope that someone in the community might step up," said Andres Garcia, president of the Western New York Hispanics and Friends Civic Association.

The Garcias and five other volunteer organizers are bowing out after more than 15 years overseeing the Hispanic celebration, held this year in the D'Youville College student center.

They leave behind a legacy that started well before them and over the years grew into one of the city's most anticipated holiday events.

Celebrated widely in Hispanic communities across the world, Three Kings Day is a cultural and religious event that many local families are eager to maintain here.

"We're keeping the tradition alive, especially for families and children," said Ventura Colon, one of the event's seven organizers.

His wife, Susana, looked across the room and noted the diversity of the crowd, mostly Hispanic but with a healthy dose of African-Americans, whites and Muslims.

"We're spreading the culture," she said of the local Hispanic community, "but it's a reciprocal kind of thing."

The holiday, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, comes 12 days after Christmas and celebrates the biblical journey of the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

As part of the celebration, toys are given to more than 300 local children -- for many of them, they are the only gifts they will receive this holiday season -- and food vouchers to 145 needy families.

"This is a chance to get the community together," said Miguel Santos, an organizer. "We're also seeing part of our Latino culture become part of our life in America."

Santos' message -- the need to keep Hispanic culture relevant to young people -- was one heard over and over again Sunday as people lamented a possible end to the Three Kings celebration.

"It's a very bittersweet moment," Susana Colon said. "We're losing a piece of us today."

There's hope that she's wrong and that the event will continue for another 27 years, if not longer.

For Ellen Garcia, there are hundreds of reasons why.

"I think it's obvious," she said as she looked around at children getting their toys and books. "People who started coming here as children are now bringing their children and grandchildren, and that's everything to us."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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