¡Feliz 2013! The beginning of a new year has arrived, but for the past three weeks millions of Angelenos have been taking part in holiday rituals and traditions imported from towns, cities and villages in Mexico. From posadas to processions, radish exhibits to pre-hispanic dance, Sonic Trace has been busy documenting moments of reverence, nostalgia and joy with Angelenos that share a deep bond with communities across the border. As we launch into 2013, take a look back on Sonic Trace’s version of December in Los Angeles – in images.

The eve before the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Sonic Trace contributor, Javier Cabral and I joined a procession of over one-hundred people, carrying a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe for over two miles for an honorary mass at St. Anne’s Church in Santa Monica.

At 430am on December 12th, Sonic Trace leader producer, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and I made our way to Santa Cecilia for what promised to be an unforgettable celebration to the Virgen de Guadalupe. We had our doubts. Both of us are originally from Mexico City, and could not imagine an L.A.-version of 12/12 could compare or compete. We were wrong. The drums of L.A.-born Aztec dancers could be heard three blocks from the church. By 5am, Santa Cecilia Church could not fit another sitting soul. When the clock struck 4:59, a live mariachi band entered the church and 600 voices belted out Las Mañanitas (Mexican Birthday song) to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Four songs later, the smell of copal incense transformed the church and in marched an Angeleno version of pre-hispanic dancers beating their drums and stomping their ankle wear in brisk, reverent dance movements at the altar of the Virgen  Guadalupe. The symbols of religious syncretism unraveling in the heart of 21st century Los Angeles. Listen to Sonic Trace on Warren Olney’s Which Way LA? to learn more.

Every year at St Cecilia Church a nativity scene is erected, but it’s no ordinary scene. It took ten days of hard work to construct. Over 100 figurines depict the bible scenes inside a grotto cavern. The photos do not do it justice. Visit Santa Cecilia Church.

The Virgen de Guadalupe is not the only Virgen venerated in Mexico and Los Angeles. There are dozens. To the Oaxacan community of L.A., the ritual to the Virgen de la Soledad is the most important celebration of the year. Just like in Oaxaca, on October 20 the icon of the Virgen begins to a nine-week travesty, staying with a different family each week. “Its is a great honor to receive the Virgen in your house, there is even a huge waiting list,” said Deacon Felix from St. Cecilia Church. We followed the trail of the Virgen de la Soledad documenting three families that housed her.

There is a ritual of arrival and departure at each home, consisting of prayers, rosaries and a mass hosted by the family housing the icon of the Virgen. At the end of the ceremony, people hang out over mole, tamales, hot champurrado (traditional Oaxacan hot drink made from chocolate). The ritual culminates on December 16 with a procession from the family’s home to the church. There the icon is received with a traditional Oaxacan music band, pre-hispanic dancers of the region and a ceremony where a crown is created out of white roses.

Hear how an Angeleno-born Angel Catalán reacts to having the Virgen at this house for a week (min. 7 approx):

The nine days leading up to Christmas are the most exciting for Angeleno natives that hold tight to their Mexican roots. It’s a time to relive the magic of Christmas, Mexican-style. December 16 sets off over a celebration of daily posadas. This tradition, inherited from Mexico’s colonial past, represents a re-enactment of the birth of baby Jesus. The ritual consists of a procession, with a group of people carrying the nativity scene. People sing house to house re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s arrival to Bethlehem, and asking for ‘posada’ or shelter. During the dates of December 16-24, at around 5pm-8pm you can see hundreds of posadas being carried out across the streets of Los Angeles. I believe it’s also a re-enactment of who we are, and what we left behind on the other side of the border.

In Oaxaca City, Mexico; December 23rd is known as La Noche de los Rábanos (The Night of the Radishes). Since 1897, people gather at the city’s zócalo (town square) to sculpt hundreds of large radishes into figurines, sometimes making entire nativity and party scenes out of the root. The peeling and sculpting culminates in a competition. L.A.’s Mercado La Paloma has brought Angelenos a taste of local Oaxaca for almost a decade.

Finally, an Angeleno-Zapotec Christmas. On December 24th, we were invited to celebrate along with the L.A. immigrants of the indigenous community from Santa Maria Tavehua, Mexico. The party was held at a ‘salon de fiestas‘ on Western and 51st. There were about 100 people, a nativity scene, a live band and two dozen children in full Mexican-Christmas-dress lined up to dance as ‘pastorcitos’ in a traditional dance from the small village of Santa María Tavehua in Oaxaca. Most of the pastorcitos in this dance are L.A.-born and have never been to their parents village. They embody the tradition without the constraints of language and geography. During the dance, audience members insist on reminding people that this same dance is happening at the same time in the village of ‘Tavehua’. A bond to the spirit of Christmas without borders.

Photos by Eric Pearse Chávez, Javier Cabral and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes

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  • james Rojas

    Great site. I wrote my MIT masters thesis on Latinos are transforming the American suburb.

    Here is an excerpt: Latinos bring a new perspective to urban America. My research is the first of its kind to examine the way Latinos are transforming the built environment of American cities. For all people it is important to understand the environment they create because it says something about us, through our uses, design and layout of it. The artifacts in our personal space represents who we are even if we are not present.
    At MIT my masters thesis examined the way Latinos use public/private space and the entire range of residents’ use of community space–from painting murals to sidewalk sales. This include looking at the street, sidewalk and front yard and how there use created the identity of place for the community.
    In Latino neighborhoods, the streets serve as plazas by creating a real sense of community by bringing people together. Latinos use the streets in high numbers compared to their non-Latino counterparts. These activities range from conversing over fences, waiting for the bus, walking, children playing, teenagers congregating and street vendors selling food and sundries from door to door.
    A typical house in the barrio resembles any house in Los Angeles, however it’s the way that the residents use the space between the houses that makes Latino LA from different from other parts of the city.
    Latinos have a unique and often overlooked perspective on using the American urban form that we can all learn from. Landscape is ephemeral and is shaped by cultural, political, geographical and economical impacts.
    The way Latinos use their streets create its identity of place. Through their use of space the ordinary landscape of the barrio has been transformed into a vibrant, unique place. This transformation has occurred in spaces in between structures, which is only limited by the residents imagination.
    The Latino urbanism represents a fluid space, that is composed of front yards and streets, public and private space which people unite by their behavior. Public space has been created by these people.
    New trends in building communities in American are searching to recreate social interactions in public space in the American suburb. This has become the new way of designing by architects, planners and urbanist. Their idea is to reconstruct festival market places, plazas and communities like Seaside Florida. However after close examination of the design guidelines of Seaside, there are strong similarities compared to the construction of the barrio. While Latino residents build or expand porches and fences, new homes in Seaside are being built with porches and fences. By building porches and fences in the new suburbs create more social interactions on the streets will be interesting to observe.
    Latino communities through out the United States offer rich solutions in solving the social voids facing suburb and should be the inspiration for new urban development once we understand how people use space.

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