Spanish patron saint honored at weekend festival in OC

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The Mexican-American community of Huntington Beach is throwing a party this weekend to celebrate St. James, known in the Spanish-speaking world as Santiago. 

The close-knit community that’s concentrated in the city’s Oak Park neighborhood has been celebrating the saint’s day, which falls on July 25, for at least 15 years.

The main attractions are the elaborately costumed dancers known as Chinelos. 

The dancers wear long, colorful robes and  feathered hats and masks, often with exaggerated chins. The Chinelos tradition began during the colonial era in the Mexican state of Morelos where indigenous people donned the costumes during celebrations as a way to mock their Spanish overlords. 

Women in Huntington Beach's Oak View neighborhood prepare nearly 2,000 tamales for attendees of the annual celebration of St. James, known as Santiago in the Spanish-speaking world, July 27, 2017.
Women in Huntington Beach's Oak View neighborhood prepare nearly 2,000 tamales for attendees of the annual celebration of St. James, known as Santiago in the Spanish-speaking world, July 27, 2017. Jill Replogle

The tradition continues today in Morelos and other parts of Mexico, as well as among Mexican-American communities across the U.S. 

Many Oak Park residents have roots in Morelos or the neighboring states of Puebla and Mexico, said festival organizer George Mendoza. But people also come for the celebration, he said, from all over Orange and LA counties — even from Oregon and Nebraska. 

Mendoza’s son, 12-year-old Rey López, is set to dance in a green-and-white robe adorned on the front with a spray-painted lion — a modern, Southern California touch — and a yellow hat with pink tassels and tall green-and-black feathers.

“First we rezar [pray], then we dance in the street, after that we rezar in the house,” he said before being interrupted by his older sister, Prisila, 15, who chastises him for his Spanglish. 

Behind them, seven women, including Rey’s mom, Cástula López, assembled tamales in the family’s cramped kitchen. 

“We make 1,800 tamales,” Cástula says in Spanish while stirring a large pot of corn masa. They’ll be handed out to whoever comes to celebrate Santiago, along with the hot corn drink atole.

“It’s kind of like a gift, saying thanks for coming here and praying, Prisila  López explained. 

The celebration starts Friday evening with a procession through Oak View and continues through Saturday with a Mass, procession, dancing and a variety of bands. 

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