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NOURISHING THE TRAVELERS

It's the coldest day of the year, and both doors of Christina Del Rio's mobile home are flung wide open.

The air is stiff and biting as it funnels past the young angel standing on the front stoop, but by the time it reaches the kitchen, the December chill has been transformed into a boil, and the cooks are in a lather as steam rolls from pots of Mexican delights.

Friends will arrive in a few hours. They are coming to sing and pray and perform Las Posadas (the inns), the Hispanic Christmas parade in which Mary and Joseph roam from house to house looking for shelter to give birth to baby Jesus.

The prayers and songs are important _ sacred even _ but, of course, everyone who comes will also eat. Like the angel who watches out for Mary and Joseph, food is part of the tradition.

Del Rio and her soul mate Maria Gomez intend to fill every belly. Las Posadas is celebrated for nine nights, and tonight, the fourth night, it will be their turn to host in their community of farm workers in northern Manatee County. The two women will not allow themselves to disappoint their guests.

The event is so important to Gomez, who works 60 to 65 hours a week as a waitress at Denny's and as a burger flipper at Burger King in Sun City, that she has taken two days from work to cook for Las Posadas.

"She can cook it the Mexican way," Del Rio says of her friend.

Gomez and Del Rio are working in an area no bigger than a truck bed. Every heat source in the room is blasting _ oven, burners and even the water _ and blue flames are shooting from a makeshift propane-fueled burner set up at the edge of the room.

An oversized aluminum tub so large that it covers two eyes on the range is filled with vegetable oil, and Gomez produces one perfectly browned tostada after another from its sizzle. She says she'll make 230 of the crispy circles and be ready to make more.

The 35-gallon vat Gomez places on the propane burner belongs to her mother. The initials "M.G." (her mother is also Maria Gomez) have been scratched into the metal with a knife. It is used today for pozole, a soup of pork and hominy. The vat was used at the Gomez household the previous night to make 500 tamales, and it will be used again at other Posadas.

As Del Rio clips savings coupons from the 6-pound cans of Juanita's Mexican Style hominy, Gomez stirs the pozole. They have one eye on a Spanish soap opera called Precious and become enthralled by the scene when an older woman is thrown in jail. The spell is broken when Del Rio's oldest son flips the channel to an action drama called Galaxy Quest. Ten seconds of hand-to-hand combat in grunting English on that channel is all the women can bear before they get him to turn back to their soap.

But their thoughts are elsewhere. They chat in Spanish about other Las Posadas. Gomez recalls the ones in Mexico, back home in Guanajuato where she figures her grandparents will also go to Las Posadas tonight. "They are old now," Gomez says. "My father's father is 92, my mother's father is 87." Gomez and her family send them money from the United States. "That's how they survive," she says.

Outside, Del Rio's daughter has donned her costume for the evening and watches as her cousins play ring around the rosy. Lucerito will be nine times an angel by the time all Las Posadas are finished. The second-grader does not know Maria's grandparents, and she has not absorbed the finer points of making pozole, but she knows about the spirit of Las Posadas. To her, it's the time of year when friends come into her mother's kitchen and cousins come to her yard.

Lucerito watches as cousins Jonelly, 8, and Aimee, 4, turn circles around a fresh poinsettia bought especially for the evening. She maintains the decorum expected of her while dressed in the costume.

"I have to be with Mary and Joseph, to help them find a place to go," she says. "There has to be a little angel taking care of them, and I'm that angel."

To contact Jamie Francis, call (727) 893-8319 or e-mail jfrancissptimes.com

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