Thursday, September 19, 2013

Celebrating Mexican Independence Day in Orange County!

On September 16, 1810, a Mexican priest of Spanish ancestry named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla called upon the peasants of the town of Dolores to rebel and fight against the colonial Spanish government, whose policies toward them were exploitive and unjust.  His famous call became known as "El Grito de Dolores" or "The Cry of Dolores" and it was the beginning of the Mexican War for Independence.  "El Grito" may be compared to "The Shot Heard Round the World" at Lexington and Concord, which symbolically began the American War for Independence a few decades earlier.  On this day every year, Mexicans and Mexcian-Americans celebrate their country's independence with "Fiestas Patrias" (Patriotic Festivals).  The local Fiestas Patrias parade and celebration in Santa Ana is one of the largest in the state and, despite the efforts of corporations and politicians to exploit it, remains vibrant.

My friend Josue and I arrived a couple hours before the big parade was to begin, and wandered around downtown Santa Ana, gentrification capitol of Orange County.  Streets were blocked off, and the parking lot of the historic Yost Theatre was filled with carnival rides, games, and vendors selling food.  As we made our way to Fourth Street, I noticed that many of the booths had nothing to do with Mexican Independence or Mexican culture even.  Dish Network, MetroPCS, Wells Fargo, Anthem Blue Cross, DirecTV, and Budweiser were just a few of the major corporations slanging their products.  This celebration felt more like a "sellabration".   It was the smaller, non-corporate vendors that made the Fiesta a fiesta, the ordinary folk making those tortas, tacos, and pupusas, the guy selling chicharrones, the woman ladling out horchata and tamarindo.

I suggested we check out the Artist's Village area of downtown and see if maybe some local artists from all those Santa Ana Art Walk galleries were showing some art for "Fiestas Patrias".  We walked over by CSUF's Grand Central Art Center and the Santora Building and…it was a ghost town.  The Artist's Village was not a part of Santa Ana's largest annual cultural celebration.   A few hipsters were sipping wine on the patio of Memphis bar. 

We headed over to 17th and Main for the main event, the big parade.  There were literally thousands of (mostly) Latinos from across Southern California, lining the streets for as far as we could see.  Corporate takeover notwithstanding, I was impressed at the sheer number of human beings gathered together in Orange County for something not sports or Disney-related.  Actually, scratch that last bit.  I soon discovered, with horror, that Mickey Mouse was an "honorary" Grand Marshall of the Mexican Independence parade.    

The parade began, not with a Virgen of Guadelupe or Mexican flag, but with three Santa Ana police officers riding horses, wearing cavalry hats, one of whom I would later watch arrest a teenager for accidentally bumping into his horse.  These caballeros were followed by three more mounted Santa Ana police officers carrying, respectively, an American flag, a California flag, and a third flag I couldn't identify (but it definitely was not the Mexican flag).

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido

After the police came the politicians.  Mayor Miguel Pulido rolled by in a Wells Fargo-y stage coach, followed by a succession of local politicians in nice cars (some blatantly advertising local dealerships): Janet Nguyen, Tom Daly, even (gulp) Donald Wagner.  The two politicians who weren't in cars were Loretta Sanchez and Lou Correa, who were on foot, working the crowd, shaking hands, waving, smiling.  Sanchez was fist-pumping quite a bit.  The whole first part of the parade felt like another advertisement, not for corporations, but for police and politicians.  

Congress member Loretta Sanchez fist pumping.

After the sensory barrage of corporate/political/police grandstanding, the actual parade began, and it was awesome!  Much of the Fiestas Patrias parade consisted of floats, dancers, riders, and musicians representing the unique cultural traditions of different states of Mexico.  Folklorico dancers from Aguascalientes, salsa dancers from Districto Federal, old school vaqueros from Durango.  

Many of these areas in Mexico have corresponding communities in Southern California, and herein lies the real significance of this parade.  For many people, immigrants from Mexico, with family ties still in Mexico, this is a way to connect to their homeland, to the culture of their families and ancestors.  Shouts of "Viva Oaxaca!" and "Viva Zacatecas!" and "Viva Mexico" filled the air from grandmas, fathers, children, mothers. What at first felt like a highly staged and controlled corporate/political event began to feel like an authentic community event.  The parade became almost defiantly authentic, having nothing to do with companies and politics, and everything to do with real human communities and family and tradition and pride in ones culture.

Some of the costumes were astonishingly beautiful, like the giant headdresses from Tabasco representing different animals.  The cultures represented tell stories of Mexico's history, with its mixing of Spanish and Native people groups clashing and sometimes coming together in beautiful ways.  Men on horses from Nayarit carried colorful woven crosses that looked both catholic and Aztec.  A huge group of Aztec dancers moved by, in synchronous rhythm, their colorful headdresses and costumes truly beautiful, the sound of their anklets like the sound of rain.  

As the parade neared the end, the crowd closed in until spectator and participant collapsed into a giant mass of humanity, a perfect ending to a parade celebrating Mexican Independence, a movement that began with ordinary folk coming together from different villages, different areas of Mexico and proclaiming their identity, their right to be free and determine their futures.  And from different people from different places I heard the common cry of "Viva Mexico!"

All of the photos in this post were taken by Josue Rivas.  Here are some more amazing photos he took: