Russell Rodríguez, Ph.D., Program Manager
September 9, 2016

Throughout the dominantly Catholic Latin America, the celebration of patron saint feast days is quite common, be it the Vírgen de Guadalupe (Mexico), El Día de San Juan (Puerto Rico), or El Día de San José (Colombia) and Holy Week throughout the Latin American countries. In some countries these days are national holidays, and in cities or towns that take the names of the saints, celebrations can last for over a week. This is the case in Santiago, Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca in which the celebration of Santiago (St. James – July 25th) is revered and incredible efforts and contributions from the community come together to maintain the wonderful cultural and traditional practices that contribute to the identity of this community and its members found throughout the diaspora.

Here at ACTA we have come to learn about this region of Oaxaca, its dances, music, food, and artisan work. If you were to search online “fiestas Juxtlahuaca” a series of wonderful indigenous dances would emerge: danza de los diablos, danza de los rubios, danza de los chareos, and danza de chilolos; and the mestizo dance and music form las chilenas. These amazing traditions provide much energy, spectacle, and foundation to communal practice. These performances, however, are contextualized in a larger web of interactions, processes, production and curation, which includes the participation of many people that are behind the scenes.

In this year’s 2016 round of ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program there are two talented master artists, both of whom work extensively to keep their Oaxacan traditions, beliefs, and culture vibrant. The two artists also, oftentimes, work behind the scenes of the public spectacle of the celebration. Nevertheless, they both play central roles in the specific fiestas patrias de Santiago in California. One is Jeorgina Martínez, who specializes in repostería de Juxtlahuaca, desserts and baked goods. Born and raised in the town of Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Jeorgina was taught by her mother, aunts and uncles (specifically her uncle Vicente González), to make a variety of baked goods that are very common to the Mixteca region in Oaxaca, which include cookies such as las regañadas, las ticutas, as well as empanadas rellenas, filled turnovers. The tradition of baked goods within the fiestas de Santiago is specific—similar to the pan de muerto (that she also makes) that is only baked for Día de los Muertos (All Souls Day)— and Martínez is well versed in making pan de labrado that is only baked for the celebration of St. James. This sweet bread comes from a dough that is vigorously kneaded and shaped into long strips, cut into small rectangular shapes, then baked (traditionally in an adobe wood oven, but in the US she utilizes a conventional oven). The pan de labrado utilizes a main ingredient called panela or piloncillo, which is unrefined cane sugar, which gives the bread its wonderful taste. Either in the morning or late at night, it is expected that fiesta participants celebrate Santiago by having a piece of the pan de labrado accompanied with a cup of champurrada, a chocolate and corn flour drink, in the same manner that it is expected to see the danza de los diablos, rubios or chareos. In Juxtlahuaca, the family of Martínez’s mother ran a panaderia (bakery) and all her aunts and uncles engaged in this tradition, however, in her mother’s own family, she was the only child to take up this work. It is for this reason she is highly compelled to teach her daughter, Diana González, the tradition of making repostería. Martínez now provides the pan de labrado, in addition to the mole dinner that she prepares with her friends, for the feast of Santiago that occurs in Concord, California, where she now resides.

Similarly, in Oceanside, California, master artist Luis Morales Ortiz, after a long day of work, heads to his small workshop in his backyard that displays a striking painting of the Archangel Michael slaying a demon, to continue to chisel out incredible facial expressions of devils, clowns, vampires, bearded men/animals from the wood of an avocado tree, which is the closest replacement for the sabino, or wood from a Montezuma Cypress, that would normally be utilized in this tradition. Morales is a mask maker for the different dance traditions of the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. Many months before the fiestas de Santiago, he receives orders from the danzantes, mostly the dancers from the danza de los diablos tradition, for masks that they can premier for the celebration. The dancers frequently send him drawings or photos of devil characters, such as the joker (from the comic book, Batman), or of an evil clown face that they like and Morales will either copy the photo or integrate characteristics from the image. He states that this is so the dancer has a stake in the design of the mask that they will don. Some dancers will ask him to create an original design for them, or a more traditional style of mask, which may be a devil or a cross between a man and an animal. The most difficult part of the mask is carving out a dynamic expression, he explains. Once the mask is carved, he then paints it using vibrant colors. To finish, animal horns (deer, cow, ram) are added to these elaborate masks to capture the attention of the fiesta attendees as the dancers zapatean (dance specific footwork) to the chilena music played by the Oaxacan banda. Realizing that there are only a few mask makers in the United States, Morales has taken an apprentice, Panúncio Gutiérrez, who demonstrates wonderful enthusiasm and potential, and is well invested in the diablo tradition as a danzante. 

The contributions made by these artists to the fiestas sometimes go without recognition, however, without the input of these artists and of many different people, the fiestas de Santiago would not be complete. In reality, the contributions by the community to the fiestas are not done to receive recognition, on the contrary, they are actual ofrendas, offerings that people make to assure that the communal practices, traditions, and ways continue to be resilient for generations to come.