Mexican cultural festival thrives in Marin Co.

January 23, 2012 1:20:01 PM PST
On a cool, bright day last month, a party tent set up at a working ranch in west Marin County was transformed into a Mexican basilica, the scent of dozens of roses brought as an offering to the Virgin of Guadalupe infusing the air.

They came from as far as 40 miles away -- dairy hands, waiters, maids, nannies, welders, busboys and hundreds of other Mexican and Mexican-American laborers who make up the working backbone of Marin County, one of the most affluent counties in the United States.

Each year on Dec. 12, the faithful make a pilgrimage to Lafranchi Ranch, rolling pastureland founded by Swiss-Italian immigrants. They come to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Roman Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary considered the Empress of Mexico and the Americas. The Virgin is the most popular cultural and religious symbol in Mexico, and her celebration, including a Mass and feast, is one of the most important dates on the Mexican calendar.

"It is a joy," said Maria de la Cruz, wearing a ubiquitous ruffled Mexican apron as she stood watch over huge pots of posole, a traditional pork and hominy stew.

The liveliness of the event -- in which posole was accompanied by a wedge of lime and live mariachi music -- stands in stark relief to many of the participants' grueling lives. Many ranch hands rise at 2:30 in the morning to milk or feed cows -- the unseen force behind Marin County's famously pastoral landscape.

In a place synonymous with the good life, where the median home price is roughly $740,000, the Latino community "tends to be invisible," said Dr. Michael Witte, founder and medical director of the nonprofit Coastal Health Alliance, which operates three clinics serving low-income patients in Marin, one-third of them Latino. Many suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

"A lot of it is generated by circumstance -- isolation, poverty, eating an American diet," Witte said. "In Mexico, they gardened and walked everywhere. Here, they can't walk to a neighbor's house or over to the next village."

Many develop ulcers and other stress-related problems, including insomnia. Severe arthritis and back pain are common.

"It's really a high-stress group of folks," Witte said. "Their lives are centered around constant work with little breaks. So celebrations are an important release for them."

The Lafranchi Ranch, which also operates the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, is now in its third generation. Only six employees live on the property full time, said Randy Lafranchi, who runs the ranch.

For those working in Marin County, finding an affordable place to live is a major challenge: Two-thirds of employees earn less than $55,000 a year, the minimum necessary to afford a median-priced one-bedroom apartment. Sixty percent in the Marin workforce commute, driving farther than others in the Bay Area to live in more affordable housing, according to a report [PDF] by Live Local Marin, published by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and the Greenbelt Alliance.

Although many celebrants live far away, the homegrown festival, now more than 30 years old, draws more than 300 people to Nicasio, a village perhaps best known as the home of George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. Eugenio Martinez, produce manager for the nearby Point Reyes Farmers Market, always brings his troupe of Aztec dancers, who convert the parking lot into a makeshift dressing room as they change into elaborate feathered headdresses, seed-pod leg rattles and other costumes.

What began as a tiny procession by ranch hands at the local church has turned into a greatly anticipated fiesta, for which funds are raised months in advance. Most participants are originally from Jalisco, including 70-year-old Esther Vidrio Tejeda Martinez, who works as a house cleaner and is the event's only living founder. Today, her long braided hair cascades down nearly half of her 5-foot frame, echoing a photograph of her younger self at the fiesta in a flowing red velvet dress. The festivities were inspired by her grandfather, Santiago Vidrio Castro, who would pray the rosary every day.

"We were a very small community but didn't want to lose our traditions," she explained.

For those of Mexican origin, public celebrations like this one, announced by the blowing of a conch shell, represent "the participatory culture of everyday life," said Eugene Rodriguez, a founder and executive director of Los Cenzontles, a nonprofit educational organization in San Pablo dedicated to authentic Mexican art forms.

"When the community of Marin talks about culture and the arts, they're not talking about this," he added, speaking of the festival. "But they should be."

Despite the local reputation for tolerance and open-mindedness, the Mexican community is "little understood by non-Mexicans," Rodriguez said. His organization is working with the Marin Community Foundation to document cultural practices, including the Virgin of Guadalupe festival, and collaborate with local Latino artists.

"Americanos, sí!" said Martinez, asked by a visitor if anyone could learn Aztec dancing.

And with that, he disappeared into the swirl of celebrants in the tent, lit like a beacon in the night.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)