Enlightening Strikes Twice : La Jamaica, as Well as Other Events in 2 Mexican Festivals, Aims to Promote Understanding


La Jamaica is more than a day to sample hot, homemade tortillas, watch skilled artisans fashion traditional crafts and enjoy lively mariachi music. Now in its 10th year, the annual Mexican folk festival, Saturday at Bowers Museum, remains an important educational tool in a society where misunderstanding among cultures festers.

“There are still a lot of things both (Anglo and Latino) cultures don’t know about each other,” said festival chairwoman Josie De Falla. “People have stereotyped ideas. . . . I myself have encountered fairly well-educated Americans who don’t realize that Mexico City has a symphony orchestra, for instance.”

“We want to instill (a sense of) our heritage not only with our own people, but to others, so they can know what we really are,” said Jay Portillo, a member of Bowers’ Mexican-American Arts Council, which is organizing La Jamaica (pronounced la ha-MY-ka ). “Fear and intimidation are caused by the unknown.”

The colorful fiesta, from 2 to 9 p.m., will include music from such Orange County groups as Mariachi Continental and Los Caramelos salsa band, elaborately costumed Relampago del Cielo folk dance troupe and Xipe Totec Aztec Dancers. Opera Pacific’s Overture Company outreach group will present the premiere of “Crisis in the Wetlands,” a children’s operetta with an environmental theme to be performed in Spanish and English.


Most live entertainment will be staged between 2 and 6 p.m. Throughout the day, Mexican food will be sold and about 15 artists will display traditional crafts, from wood carvings to papel picado (cut paper decorations), and demonstrate their techniques. Also planned is a procession by Mexican Consulate officials in observance of el 16 de Septiembre (Mexican Independence Day) and the coronation of “Queen of La Jamaica,” crowned for her beauty, talent and the money she raises for nonprofit Latino community groups.

The festival typically draws between 2,500 and 4,000 people from throughout the county and beyond, organizers say. It is modeled after a traditional Mexican jamaica , an annual church fair and fund-raiser. Money from Saturday’s food sales will benefit other educational programs of the Mexican-American Art council.

This year it is part of Artes de Mexico, one of two Mexican cultural festivals presented as a single celebration that will feature about 400 events throughout Southern California from September through December. (The other festival is called Mexico: A Work of Art.)

La Jamaica organizers have the same aim, on a more limited scale, as officials of the two-pronged umbrella event centered in Los Angeles, said De Falla, Bowers’ former acting director: “To bring to the attention of citizens in the U.S. some of the artistic endeavors going on in Mexico.”


The larger festival will cut a wide swath, from pre-Columbian sculpture to contemporary Mexican film, while La Jamaica will focus on traditional arts, music and dance. But “the council views this event as one small step, one area of Mexican culture” that needs to be promoted and supported, De Falla said.

Latino art will be showcased at two other county venues in coming months. “Hand in Hand: Art and Artesania from Jalisco, Mexico,” featuring folk and contemporary art, will open Friday at the Brea Civic & Cultural Center. (See accompanying story.) It is also part of Artes de Mexico.

At Laguna Art Museum, “Self Help Artists: Painting and Printmaking in East L.A.,” with works by 10 Los Angeles Latino artists, and “El Taller de Grafica Popular: Mexican Workshop for Popular Graphic Art, 1937-1949,” open today. “Dream and Perspective: The American Scene in Southern California, 1930-1945,” which runs through Nov. 3, examines a period when Mexican art was “as mainstream and influential as European art,” said the museum’s associate curator, Susan M. Anderson.

The three Laguna shows were not organized as part of the larger umbrella festival, said Anderson, who believes that more and more Latino art is being exhibited in mainstream institutions and will continue to be. She cites the cornerstone of the umbrella festival, “Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries,” a massive, 400-piece survey of Mexican art from 1000 B.C. to 1950 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and an 1989 exhibit shown there, “Hispanic Art in the United States: 30 Contemporary Painters and Sculptors.”


“I think the increase of Latino art in mainstream institutions is a lasting development, not a one-shot deal,” Anderson said. “I also think that because of the real contribution that that art made to California art early on, it really makes sense, and historical exhibits of California art will keep bringing that out.”

Thomas Lentz, LACMA’s ancient-art curator and “Splendors” coordinator, agreed. “There has been a recent increase in Hispanic art exhibitions at U.S. museums, particularly in areas close to Mexico, such as Southern California,” he said.

Despite such strides, La Jamaica organizers still see a cultural imbalance locally that favors 18th- and 19th-Century European art forms. Helping to bridge this cultural chasm are ongoing outreach efforts by other major Orange County arts groups, such as South Coast Repertory productions of works by Latino playwrights or music by Latino composers performed by Pacific Symphony.

Perhaps most overlooked are independent “Latino artists in the county who have no regular (avenue for) displaying their works to the public,” De Falla said.


One solution, she said, would be an approach taken in San Antonio, Tex., “which has opened galleries specifically devoted to Latin American art. . . . That would be a start.”

In the meantime, La Jamaica will always be relevant, Jay Portillo said, because each new generation needs exposure.

“It’s a continuing effort we have to maintain,” he said.

La Jamaica, a Mexican folk festival with music, dance, traditional crafts and foods, will be held Saturday from 2 to 9 p.m. at Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, in the parking lot and surrounding museum grounds. Admission is free. Information: (714) 972-1900.