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Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2005


A Saint's Call Lures Southlanders to a Yearly Homecoming
Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2005
By Jennifer Delson, Times Staff Writer

SAHUAYO, Mexico — As he has year after year, Luis Prado set aside $5,000 from his job as a beverage captain at a Newport Beach hotel so he, his wife and their two children could return home to this dusty town whose patron saint is celebrated with a raucous carnival.

They were among thousands of Southern California residents who made the trip last week to Sahuayo, where the 475-year-old festival — a two-week-long tradition that fuses Spanish and Catholic cultures — is a siren song that brings emigrants back home.

"You feel the warmth," Prado said. "You feel the energy of the people, and it rubs off. You keep the faith in your birthplace."

Arriving by car, bus and plane from Southern California, people like Prado return to find family and spiritual grounding in the celebration of St. James' Day on July 25.

There's the owner of a Santa Ana tire company, a factory worker from Los Angeles who saves his income tax refund for airfare, and a recent Santa Ana high school graduate who spent months working out at a local gym so he could wear the heavy, traditional costume during the festival's highpoint — an arduous, 12-hour parade through the city's avenues.

Nowhere do Sahuayo's ties to the United States run deeper than in Santa Ana, where it is estimated that 30,000 former townspeople live. The Orange County city, known to some as Little Sahuayo, is dotted with names borrowed from the town in central Mexico — Sahuayo Tires, Carnitas Sahuayo, Tacos Sahuayo.

During the festival, the visiting immigrants stream into the streets to honor their patron saint, Santiago, or St. James the Greater. Santiago is said to have appeared as a warrior who helped the Spanish defeat the Moors. His likeness was transplanted to Mexico, where, during a battle in the 1500s in the area where Sahuayo now stands, the locals are said to have put down their weapons when they saw a statue of Santiago. Researchers believe that the indigenous people may actually have surrendered peacefully because Santiago's likeness was so similar to that of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

The festival, in various forms, has been a constant ever since, and the 2-foot statue of Santiago — at least this year — is dressed in a cream-colored brocade cape and specially made Tony Lama boots as it is carried through the streets, firecrackers exploding and onlookers chanting, "Viva el Patron Santiago. Viva Mexico."

By day, the visitors watch as more than 1,000 dancers, wearing 80-pound costumes and 3-foot feathered masks, dance through the street, complying as children shout "vuelta, vuelta, vuelta," asking them to spin around.

The visitors drink beer, tequila and cognac in the street, bump into cousins and friends and visit old haunts. They eat corundas, a tamale-like dish, and stroll past small, street corner bonfires of resinous ocote pine.

And when the statue of Santiago is carried through the street, tears well in their eyes. They ask the saint for the strength and health to keep working and hold their families together in the north. Santiago, they say, pulls them through tough times, so it's only fair that they come to pay him tribute, no matter the cost.

In the morning, the smell of stale beer and tequila hangs in the air, and the streets are swept as celebrants prepare to do it all over again.

The city of about 65,000, 60 miles southeast of Guadalajara, swells dramatically during the festival, according to the mayor. And it is probably not because of the town's beauty. Although its main plaza's wrought iron benches and gazebo are picturesque, storefronts are aging, and smoke-belching buses clog the streets.

Jesus Martin Chavez left Sahuayo more than 30 years ago, and once he became a legal United States resident in 1986 and could freely travel between the two countries, he vowed never to miss the festival again, even if it meant scrimping the rest of the year and taking no other vacations.

The carnival "fills your soul. It gives you life for the rest of the year," said Chavez, 44, a Westminster resident who owns businesses in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa.

As Manuel Castañeda, 43, walks in the procession in cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat, the father of two admits that he cries.

He thanks St. James for what he has achieved and asks for one more year of health and well-being.

"Everything has gone my way," says Castañeda, a construction foreman in Santa Ana. "I went to the United States illegally, got a green card and then I became a citizen. I bought a home in Santa Ana. I own land in Mexico, and it's all because of Santiago. He has given everything to me."

The procession, which anyone can join, is always the main event. Participants dress in colorful outfits, many wearing the traditional heavy mask and tunic with hundreds of stainless steel tubes attached that jingle as the wearer walks. Some participants dance, and some just amble along, sipping ponche, a concoction of pomegranate, chocolate, walnuts and cane alcohol. Many wear no shoes to show their faith in St. James, a sign of the suffering they are willing to endure.

When it rains — and it seems to rain every day — the dancers cover their masks with plastic and the bands don't miss a beat.

Such celebrations are held throughout Mexico each year; migrants from the United States often return home to honor the patron saints of their towns and for Christmas.

Jorge Bustamante, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and founder of Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a border research institute, says feast days and other festivals are important to emigrants, who consider their birthplace a part of their identity that cannot be diluted by migration.

There is so great a connection between Santa Ana and Sahuayo that the most popular pizzeria in the Mexican town is owned by a former busboy from Antonello Ristorante, an Italian restaurant in Santa Ana.

The owners of the Restaurant Plaza Sahuayo got their baked potato recipe from the Costa Mesa hotel where they once worked.

And when Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio and Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro, the Mexican consul in Santa Ana — walked the parade route in Sahuayo last week, they were greeted with hugs.

The to-and-fro of emigrants keeps Sahuayo's stores thriving and maintains a culture in which people consider it natural to have feet planted in two countries.

"I have everything I have because of the United States," said Pedro Magallon, 28, a father of three who emigrated as a toddler and comes to the celebrations every three years from Santa Ana. "But I cannot forget where I come from. And I want my children to know, even though they are born in the United States, that their heritage comes from here."

The celebrations give Sahuayo its character all year long, and for natives this is understood at an early age. Babies are dressed in velour capes resembling St. James’ and children as young as 4 walk with smaller, but still heavy, masks for the entire 12 hours.

The women of Sahuayo who sew costumes and paint masks begin their work for the next celebration just days after the processions end.

"The processions, the arrival of relatives from the north, the costumes and the religious fulfillment — it makes Sahuayo what it is," said Mayor Rafael Ramirez. The mayor is so close to emigrants in Santa Ana that many call him by his nickname, "Fallo," and carry his cellphone number.

Over six decades, the masks used in the procession have become ever more elaborate, said Maria de Lourdes Navarete, whose late father made masks for 50 years.

Working in her spartan home at a small table, Navarete now makes 350 masks each year. The masks and head dressing cost each dancer $350 to $700, she said. Participants buy new masks each year.

Wearing the masks is strenuous, which is why Dean Magaña, who just graduated from Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, trained for months at Bally's Total Fitness so he would be strong enough to make it through the procession. "For me, it's not a question of whether to do this," Magaña said, the large mask propped on his shoulders as he stood in front of Santiago the Apostle Church, waiting to march. "This is just something we do," he said. "It's part of who we are."
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