A Promise to the Virgin Mary Santa Cruz woman carries on grandmother's tradition

By Andrea Patton

When Gabriela Cruz was five years old, her grandmother and uncle started organizing the annual Las Posadas in Santa Cruz. The weeklong community festival carried on as a much-anticipated event for 25 years. The final and largest posada was always organized by her grandma and ended at the Beach Flats Park with a DJ and people dancing well into the night.

 “It was started as a promise my grandma had made to the Virgin Mary as a thank-you for allowing her kids to immigrate safely,” Cruz says.

Now that her grandma is getting older, she wants to see the festival that unites the community continue to thrive, so she is working with immigrant rights group Sanctuary Santa Cruz to help the community put on the event.

Las Posadas began Sunday and will continue each night of the week until Saturday, Dec. 22. The festival, brought to Mexico by Catholic Spaniards, is a nightly street play where community members gather in a procession to re-enact the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, who after being turned away several times, eventually find shelter for the birth of Jesus.

Las Posadas, Cruz says, helps bring awareness to our Santa Cruz community that immigration is an important part of the story of Jesus’s birth. “This is a re-enactment of people fleeing and seeking refuge in a different place because it was no longer safe for them to be there. It’s what we’re seeing now,” she says. “It’s very relevant now.”

Last year Cruz heard from several attendees new to Las Posadas that they hadn’t ever been to these more impoverished neighborhoods in Santa Cruz, yet the hosts who served food that they prepared and paid for themselves enthusiastically welcomed everyone.

Cruz has just returned to Santa Cruz from her fellowship with United We Dream in Orange County where she helped organize immigrant youth in a civic engagement campaign called “Education Not Deportation.” The effort to elect local candidates who supported defunding ICE detention centers was successful. All of Orange County was flipped from its historic reputation as a Republican stronghold.

Closer to the midterm election, Cruz also spent time in California’s 10th Congressional District in Modesto, where United We Dream partnered with the United Farmworkers Movement to help elect 32-year-old Democratic candidate Josh Harder who beat four-term Republican incumbent Jeff Denham.

Denham had signed on as a supporter of the Dream Act, but never voted to have it heard on the House floor, Cruz says. She first became involved with United We Dream when she visited Modesto last January. “Here I am coming full circle again,” she says now. “I’m back there but trying to get him unelected from his seat, which we were able to accomplish.”

Now, returning to her home in Santa Cruz, the young woman will continue her work with United We Dream in an effort to put immigrant youth at the forefront of immigrant rights groups as well as helping to facilitate Las Posadas.

Fe Silva-Robles, who directs the youth music and dance group Senderos with her sister, Nereida Robles Vasquez, says Las Posadas hereis very similar to how it is held in her home of Oaxaca. “We, in Mexico, in our villages, we don’t expect presents under the tree. It’s just spiritual, it’s just community. It’s just being together. That is the posada,” she says.

Cruz’s family is also from Oaxaca and she says her mother really appreciates the performance of the Senderos youth musicians and dancers. “We were at the garden at Beach Flats and [my mom] was like, ‘This just reminds me of back home. It makes me so happy to see the kids playing these instruments, at such a time too,’” Cruz says.

‘Posada is when you give shelter to someone. When you help someone in need. All of the immigrants who are at the border, they are wishing to have a posada,” Silva-Robles says. “We try to help each other. That’s why we practice Guelaguetza because we have each other.”

Viva Oaxaca Guelaguetza is one of the main festivals Senderos hosts in May. Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word that means “a commitment of sharing and cooperation.”

Silva-Robles says festivals like Las Posadas and Guelaguetza provide a kind of therapy for immigrant families who can’t easily travel to Mexico to celebrate the traditional fiestas.

Members of Senderos will be leading the procession with authentic music several nights, with special performances Dec. 17 and Dec. 20. “The work that they’re doing is amazing. I couldn’t even speak higher of them,” Cruz says. “They’re really great.”

Silva-Robles emphasizes the cultural aspect of the festival more so than the religious, telling her Senderos members that it is an excuse to be together and to share a cup of hot chocolate, tamales, and most importantly, time. It’s also a chance to share the culture of Mexico with members of the community here.

“Now more than ever, we need to be together,” Silva-Robles says. “A lot of families face very strong challenges.”

Silva-Robles became involved with Sanctuary Santa Cruz after the ICE raid in the Beach Flats community on Feb. 13, 2017, as a way to alleviate some of the daily challenges immigrants in Santa Cruz County are facing whether those challenges occur here, at the border, or in their home villages.

As community coordinator at one of the middle schools in Santa Cruz, she had to be informed. Soon after, she got involved in Sanctuary Santa Cruz’s Know Your Rights campaign. With the help of attorney Karen Mallory, she and other volunteers train the community in knowing their rights in the event of another unexpected immigration raid.

Know Your Rights is one of several programs under the umbrella organization of Sanctuary Santa Cruz, which recently opened its own meeting space in downtown Santa Cruz at the Santa Cruz Hub for Sustainable Living. The community collective building also houses the Bike Church, The Fabrica, Santa Cruz Climate Action Network, Subrosa and others.

Before the new meeting space was secured, the individual Sanctuary Santa Cruz groups met in different locations around town, so in a way, members of this immigrant rights group, have found their own posada.

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Andrea Patton

About Andrea Patton

Andrea grew up in Salinas, moved to Ohio to teach high school English and journalism, and returned to Santa Cruz where she wrote for Good Times and taught at Cabrillo College. An avid traveler, she currently resides in Seattle.