Dancing Up a Storm

June 12, 2014 |
A folklorico dancer at a previos El Día de San Juan Fiesta. photo: Steve Renzi

A folklorico dancer at a previous El Día de San Juan Fiesta.
photo: Steve Renzi

Who says history can’t be fun? Or, that a religious celebration has to be pious and dull? History is much more than famous people and great events; it’s also about the songs we sing, the games we play and the way we celebrate our past. History is about connecting with previous generations by showing respect for those who came before us. However, nobody says you can’t have a good time.

Case in point is the annual El Dia de San Juan Fiesta, taking place on Tuesday, June 24 on the west side of Downtown. Honoring Saint John the Baptist, the fiesta is an important religious holiday in the Catholic and Southwestern Mexican-American community. The celebration of water comes with hopes and prayers for a vigorous and healthy monsoon season.

The fiesta begins at 5 p.m., when the community gathers in the Mission Garden—by the Mercado San Agustin on the corner of West Congress Street and Avenida del Convento—and processes to the lot where the fiesta is held. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to join no matter what religion, race, creed or Facebook status.

A four-foot statue of John the Baptist is carried in front, followed by priests, mariachis, Native American drummers, chanters, families and individuals. Also carried in the procession is a large olla filled with holy water, blessed by a priest. People are welcome to bring containers to take some of the water with them to bless their homes and family, according to Lillian Lopez-Grant, El Dia de San Juan Fiesta Committee president. It was through her and the committee’s efforts that the fiesta was revived after a long hiatus 17 years ago, in 1997.

“It was a piece of the culture that was missing, we wanted to bring it back to what it was,” said Lopez-Grant.

According to legend, on June 24, 1540, Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez Coronado was kneeling on the banks of the Santa Cruz River praying for rain. It was a bitter drought, and his animals were dying of thirst. He prayed to Saint John the Baptist for rain and shortly after, the rains came.

Sitting at a shaded table in the Mercado San Agustin with Lopez-Grant, Sally Polanco, a San Juan Fiesta board committee member for 14 years, describes how San Juan’s day was celebrated in the earlier years of Tucson: “My mother was born in 1910 in Tucson. I have a photograph of her sitting on the bank of the Santa Cruz where the water flowed and big ash trees grew and provided shade. On Dia de San Juan, families would gather along the river as the early evening approached. Musicians would bring guitars, food would be prepared and shared and an informal Mexican rodeo called charreada would commence. There would be rodeo contests, roping and horse racing. Children would play in the water. Priests would bless and baptize. There was lots of laughter and good times,” said Polanco.

Today, the fiesta is trying to bring back some of the old traditions and start a few new ones, according to Lopez-Grant.

Cultural activities take place during El Día de San Juan Fiesta. photo: Steve Renzi

Cultural activities take place during El Día de San Juan Fiesta.
photo: Steve Renzi

“It is a religious, cultural and educational celebration, open to everyone. There is no admission charge. Unique to Tucson, compared to other Southwestern celebrations, no alcohol is served. It is a family affair,” she said.

“Last year, we had more people than ever before,” added Polanco. “It is the day of water and water is given away for free. Last year we gave away over 125 cases of water.”

“There will be informational and educational booths and lots of food. We will have farmers from the Tohono O’odham nation bringing fresh vegetables from their farms. And of course, Lupita Pulido will be back again this year with her ice-cold aquas frescas, fruit drinks, horchata, tamarindo; she makes them on the spot, nothing artificial,” said Lopez-Grant.

“We’ll have Sheriff Ya-Ya, who also performs at the Old Souls Procession. We’ll have women mariachi musicians performing named Mariachi Viva La Mujer and we’ll finish this year like last year with Gertie and the T.O. Boyz. Last year the celebration was still going strong at 11 p.m. We had to ask people to leave.”

On El Dia de San Juan, the summer solstice is past and the heat is on. Landscapers start work at 5 a.m., un-shaded steering wheels are too hot to handle and even the saguaros need sunglasses. During the day, cotton-white clouds grow and rise over the mountains. Evening approaches and the clouds float down over the valley with a flash of lightning, followed by the low growl of thunder. Here comes the rain.

El Dia de San Juan Fiesta is Tuesday, June 24 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. next to Mercado San Agustin, 100 S. Avenida del Convento, on the southeast corner of Congress Street and Avenida del Convento.

Category: Community, Events, FOOD & DRINK