A Vision to Behold

The Virgin of Guadalupe feast day just starts a busy Latino Christmas season. Champurrado anyone?

By Agustin Gurza
Published on LatinoLA: December 15, 2007

A Vision to Behold

Originally published in the LA Times with photos

Culture observer Abelardo de la Pe??a Jr., editor of LatinoLA.com, is enjoying a tostada de picadillo on Olvera Street when he off-handedly reveals a rather impressive fact about his shopping habits. He claims he hasn't been to a mall to buy Christmas gifts for as long as he can remember, and that's at least a decade.

"There's an anti-mall sentiment among Chicanos," says De la Pe??a, a hip-looking grandfather who wears his hippie-length hair in a ponytail. "And Olvera Street is seen by culturally aware Latinos as kind of an anti-mall. They can go from one end to the other to pick up all their gifts while supporting artists and artisans at the same time. There are some gems there, and people appreciate receiving something authentic, something cultural."

Some consider Olvera Street a tourist trap, with trinkets and T-shirts sold at those booths that line the narrow alley between Main and Alameda streets just northeast of downtown in the historic heart of Los Angeles. But on certain festive occasions, the street and the surrounding area, known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, becomes a place to showcase authentic Mexican American traditions with food, music, religious rituals and centuries-old pageantry.

All across Southern California, Latinos observe the holiday season with unique customs that have been handed down for generations. Mexicans make tamales and champurrado, a thick Aztec drink composed of corn masa and chocolate spiced with cinnamon or vanilla. And people take part in Las Posadas, a candlelit procession that reenacts the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem, with actors playing the parts of Mary and Joseph going door to door seeking lodging, followed by children dressed as shepherds.

Although these are some of the oldest and loveliest holiday traditions in Mexican culture, they are not as widely known as, say, Cinco de Mayo. Perhaps that's because the rest of the world is steeped in its own traditions at this time of year. But it's well worth the time and effort to share in some of these cultural events, including Las Posadas on Olvera Street, a nine-day festivity that starts Sunday. More information on this and other events is listed below.

I met De la Pe??a for lunch this week at one of our favorite spots, La Luz del D?¡a, a cafeteria-style restaurant offering thick handmade tortillas prepared behind the counter. It's located at the entrance to Olvera Street with an outdoor patio facing the small plaza and the church across the street. It was noon on Tuesday, and it was already impossible to find a place to park as people started gathering to celebrate the annual feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is the real kickoff of the holiday season for Mexican Americans.

For 24 hours, from Dec. 11 through the actual feast day Dec. 12, Angelenos converge on the downtown site to mark what they believe was the apparition of the mother of God to a humble Aztec named Juan Diego in 1531, not long after the Spanish conquest. The white Spaniards could not believe that God would speak through a lowly Indian until a miracle persuaded them otherwise: An image of the brown-skinned Virgin appeared on Juan Diego's peasant cloak. That's the image we see today on everything from street murals to tattoos.

The Guadalupe story, steeped in symbols of poverty, power and race, has been at the core of Mexican culture and history for almost 500 years. It's not hard to see how the message would appeal to Latino immigrants, the most marginalized people in our country today. It's a reassuring religious notion to think you too might be spurned by society but embraced by God.

The image of Guadalupe has been a powerful political force too, carried as a banner from Mexican independence in the early 1800s to the fight for farmworkers led by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. Various incarnations of the image are on display right off the Placita Olvera at the basement gallery of the Mexican Cultural Institute, where writer and editor De la Pe??a is a board member and acting director. The exhibition includes an image of Guadalupe painted on a tortilla by the artist Joe Bravo.

Another Guadalupe exhibition, "The Virgen Prints of Self Help Graphics," can be found a few blocks away at the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, located within the beautifully remodeled building housing the New LATC, the Spring Street theater complex run by the Latino Theater Company. But the main event here is the extended presentation of a Guadalupe play that for the last six years has been performed only at downtown's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

This is the first time that the theatrical reenactment, "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin," is being staged for an extended run after the cathedral performance, which drew 7,000 people last weekend. The production, in Spanish and Nahua with English supertitles, features a modified company of 50, with East L.A.-born mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzm?ín in the lead role and Sal Lopez as Juan Diego.

After lunch, I walked to the theater to meet with director Jose Luis Valenzuela, who's also a professor in the theater school at UCLA. His wife, actress Evelina Fernandez, who adapted the play from a historic Nahua text, was also there preparing for rehearsals. Both Guzm?ín and Fernandez will participate in a round-table discussion of the Guadalupe tradition at the New LATC today from 1 to 4 p.m. before the 8 p.m. show.

"It's more like a pageant, lots of costumes, rituals, dancers and music," says Valenzuela, looking dapper with his silver hair, dark scarf and polka-dot tie. "I don't think you need to get the language to see the magic of it."

By the time I left The Times' building later that evening, there was a traffic jam all the way up Broadway as the faithful flocked to the round-the-clock Masses celebrated at Our Lady Queen of Angels, known as La Placita Church. This year for the first time, midnight Mass was held simultaneously inside the church and outside at the kiosk in La Placita, where several thousand had gathered.

The silence of the masses is what impressed L.A. city employee John Kopczynski, who works for the agency that manages Olvera Street. It had been a frenetic day for him, stilled only by the hush that fell over the crowd for the midnight service.

"For me," Kopczynski says, "it wasn't even a matter of being religious. It was just a moment of peace after running around all day with my staff. The stars were out. It was a cool night. Everyone was quiet at that moment and it was a chance to take a breath."

Here are details on some Latino Christmas events:

* Las Posadas at Olvera Street, Sunday to Dec. 24, starts daily at 5 p.m., pi??ata breaking at 6:30 p.m., candlelight procession from 7:30 to 8:15 p.m. Featuring live entertainment and free champurrado, pan dulce and hot punch. El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, 845 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 485-8372 or go to www.olvera-street.com.

* The Latino Theater Company presents "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin." Today and Sunday and Thursday through next Saturday at the New LATC, 514 S. Spring, Los Angeles. Tickets $15 and $28. For information, call (213) 489-0994 or go to www.thenewlatcstore.com.

* "Mariachi USA Christmas" features Christmas songs in Spanish and English with special guests Trio Los Panchos, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Call 1-800-MARIACHI.

* "Too Many Tamales," the theater production based on a story about family, friends and miracles, has become a Christmas tradition. Now in its 11th year, it is presented by the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. Runs through Dec. 30 at Teatro Carmen Zapata, 421 N. Avenue 19, Los Angeles. Performances alternate weekly in Spanish and English with shows every Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at noon, 2 and 4 p.m. Tickets $15 for children 12 and under, $17 for adults. Reservations strongly recommended. Call (323) 225-4044.

* "Fiesta Navidad," with Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, features Christmas traditions as well as music and dance from various regions of Mexico. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Ren?®e & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tickets $25 to $95. Call (949) 553-2422 or go to www.philharmonicsociety.org.


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