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Youth agency puts new spin on a Latino tradition

Without Sociedad Latina, 16-year-old Daniel Hernandez believes he would have ended up on the streets.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Tanari Liza Jimenez, 7 from Mission Hill, held onto her gift horse, one of three given out to the children.

“In middle school, I used to hate school. I planned to drop out as soon as I was allowed to,’’ said Hernandez, of Roslindale, a 10th-grader at Fenway High School.

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But yesterday, Hernandez said he has every intention of going to college, and he gives all the credit to Sociedad Latina, a Latino youth advocacy organization, which held its annual Three Kings Day celebration yesterday. Sociedad Latina, he said, encouraged him in his studies and gave him after-school tutoring.

The Three Kings Day party is the organization’s biggest event of the year. About 300 people crowded into Roxbury’s Mission Church Parish Center to celebrate the occasion, complete with music, awards, healthy(ish) breakfast foods, and games.

The event, in its 21st year, once focused on a skit celebrating the Three Kings. But in recent years, the group has taken a more modern approach in its celebration of the traditional Latino holiday, focusing the event this year on family, Latino solidarity, education, and healthy eating, said Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, the organization’s executive director.

“We don’t really want to be perceived as a very religious organization, because that’s not who we are,’’ Oliver-Dávila said. “But we wanted to carry on the tradition as a cultural centerpiece.’’

At the celebration, Sociedad Latina gave awards to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for its push to eliminate sugary beverages from the hospital cafeteria, and the Student Immigrant Movement, for its work advocating for immigrants in local schools and universities.

“It’s a great honor to be recognized,’’ said Sergiu Voicila, 19, one of the organizers of the Student Immigrant Movement. Born in Romania, he now attends Lesley University. “It really shows that someone’s aware of what we’re doing, that we’ve made an impact.’’

For many, the highlight of the morning may have come during the Three Kings Day trivia game, when children received toys if they answered questions about why the holiday is important to the Latino community.

Tanariliza Jimenez, 7, was awarded a giant stuffed animal, a brown horse. Clutching the plush steed around its waist - the toy was larger than her own body - the girl promptly burst into joyful tears, to the laughter of the families surrounding her.

For Shynnah Monge Ayuso, 20, becoming involved with Sociedad Latina is a family tradition: her five siblings all worked at Sociedad. She has been there for five years.

Three Kings Day, she said, is the highlight of the year for both the children and adults involved with the organization.

“It makes me proud of Sociedad, and proud of my culture,’’ said Monge Ayuso, who lives in Mission Hill. “It’s good for everyone to get together to have fun.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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