Three Kings and Octavitas bring a taste of home for Puerto Ricans starting over in Philly

Asaf Barrios, 11, jams out on his steele drum accompanied by his father, Raul, at APM's Three Kings Day/Octavious celebration for displaced families from Puerto Rico in North Philadelphia on January 12 2018. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Asaf Barrios, 11, jams out on his steele drum accompanied by his father, Raul, at APM's Three Kings Day/Octavious celebration for displaced families from Puerto Rico in North Philadelphia on January 12 2018. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Three Kings Day and Octavitas are two post-Christmas holiday celebrations important in Latin America. For recent arrivals from Puerto Rico it felt like home when they visited a community center in North Philadelphia this weekend.

They were treated to a party packed with families drinking hot chocolate and eating cake. During the event, Raul Berrios reflects why he and his nine-year-old son Asaf left his home a couple months ago. A musician, Berrios says his family has deep roots in San Juan and never thought a storm would chase them out since they had weathered several hurricanes

“But Maria? Wow, man…we had to move here because when the hurricane came. It’s something that if I explain to you- I can’t imagine that that’s going to happen,” he said.

Every part of his life there is now unrecognizable. “I was part of a brass band and we had just finished an album of music for kids and were planning a big concert in the city’s main plaza,” said Berrios. “That plaza is gone and I haven’t seen any of those guys [since the storm], they all moved to different places.”

Nydia Lugos is a social worker for Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha or APM who says her organization sees about five new displaced Puerto Rican families a day seeking services. She says the biggest obstacles for her clients are the time limits on federal emergency aid and the city’s lack of affordable housing.

“Many of these people, they don’t have any plan to go back to the island,” explained Lugos. “And I feel that the help they are getting is limited because they are expecting them to go back,” she said.

The tipping point for the Berrios family was when the devastation interrupted Raul’s cancer treatment and Asaf acquired a serious infection from polluted water. Asaf’s mother already was living in Philly for work, which lead them to join the estimated 800 Puerto Rican families who have relocated here following Hurricane Maria in October.

Dressed as one of the three kings or wise men, who according to tradition visit the baby Jesus, Tashonn Bungy helped distribute presents to every child at the celebration. Bungee is a resource coordinator for APM, which sponsored the event. Recent snow days delayed the Three Kings Day celebration, he explained,  so they’re technically celebrating Octavitas — a Puerto Rican tradition of celebrating the eight days following the epiphany, which is on January 6th.

“It’s about people coming over and realizing you’re not alone, that there are people here to encourage, people here you can feel safe with and people that you feel like, ‘OK, that’s something I can recognize and I can be a part of and I can appreciate and they actually appreciate me, they’re thinking about me,” said Bungee before donning a blue robe and gold crown.

Nydia Lugos says most families have wasted no time finding work here and enrolling their kids in public schools. “They are really moving on it,” she said.

After lining up medical treatment for himself and Asaf, Raul Berrios says he’s found work doing what he did back home: teaching music and making instruments out of recycled materials, this time for kids in Camden and North Philly.

He still worries about their new life here: his temporary apartment funded through FEMA ends in two weeks and Asaf is still adjusting to his new fourth grade class. But for Three Kings Day, they looked at home playing in the party’s calypso band.

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