It must be more than a dozen years since I last saw Rosario Velarde's Nativity scene, and that occasion didn't especially suggest it had much of a future, as it was all going tilted and sloshy in a driving rainstorm.
But the rococo sprawl of Velarde's front-yard effort hasn't been daunted by storm, recession or time. The yard next to hers is decorated only with a broken shopping cart; there are boarded-up businesses across the street, and just beyond her fence, traffic roars by with a Yuletide desperation.
But on East Warner Avenue, Velarde is caretaker of another world, arranging weathered figurines, plastic Easter basket grass, sawdust and broken Styrofoam mountains from model train sets into a striking vision of the birth and life of Christ. As she is for much of the two months before Christmas, she is on her knees in the yard, adjusting the scenes until they are just right.
"I'm sorry you have to see everything so ugly," she apologizes in Spanish--her only language--simply because the hundreds of elements in her creation aren't yet perfectly ordered, and there is still the desert to make. She uses real sand for that, taken from local beaches. In recent years officials have told her she can't do that anymore, but it looks to her as if the officials have enough sand to go around.
Building Nativity scenes has been Velarde's hobby since she was 6, growing up in Guadalajara. It became more than a hobby in 1953, when she went through a life-threatening liver and gall bladder operation in Mexicali.
"I asked Jesus to allow me to live because my children were very young," she recalled. "I told him if he allowed me to live that I would always build his Nativity."
She made a miraculous recovery from her surgery, and though doctors have told her she now needs a shoulder operation, she prefers using her faith to deal with the pain. She couldn't take time off from her Nativity anyway.
Zestfully chain-smoking cigarettes, the 73-year-old great-grandmother goes about her work tirelessly, balancing on the precarious tiers of her biblical world to adjust an angel or redirect some electrical wiring.
Her first childhood Nativity was a nickel's worth of figurines she set up in a boot box. Soon she graduated to doing a tabletop tableaux, decorating it with real shrubs and vines. After she married, the Nativity took over the whole living room, so people had to view it through windows from the outside. She's been creating it on her present scale since moving to Santa Ana in 1960, at the same address for the last 20 years.
In some local burghs, folks just throw money at their yard, creating opulent monstrosities that make about the same spiritual statement that a power tie does. Meanwhile, Velarde holds her display together with a glue she makes out of flour and water. The household's income averaged about $9,000 a year until Rosario's 74-year-old husband, Joaquin, retired six months ago.
"We never went without food or clothes," Velarde said, "but whenever there was anything left over, it went toward (the display)."
Joaquin worked as a field laborer and tractor driver for Sakioka Farms, the longtime Santa Ana growers, which owns the house the Velardes live in rent-free. The company also pays the utilities.
Not wanting to take advantage of the free electricity, Velarde plugs her display into a generator, which she said uses about $8 a night in gas to power the lights and waterfalls. Many of the hundreds of visitors the Nativity draws each year leave small donations, which cover the electrical costs. One well-dressed couple even once gave her $100.
She rebuilds the Nativity from memory each year. Sometimes her grandsons lay out the wood-flat tiers differently, and her design changes a bit. Other times she makes improvements, such as the waterfalls, two of which have water cascading down a series of abalone shells. She once used mud to build the houses. Now her husband builds most of them from wood.
Literally hundreds of figurines are laid out to depict events from the New Testament. Many of the little clay models are Biblical figures, but she also has Mexican peasants, Africans on elephants and Alpine chalets scattered about. Her Lazarus looks like a character from a Mexican mummy film.
They are arrayed in 30 "frames," as she calls them, explaining each: "Here's the visitation of the angel; there, the presentation at the temple after 40 days; there, arriving at the manger. There's the first miracle of Jesus when he made a dove from mud."
There are humanizing details here that are left out of the Crystal Cathedral's "Glory of Christmas": "Here's the dream of St. Joseph," Velarde said, pointing to a figure alone in a house, "when he didn't understand what was happening, because he hadn't touched his woman, how could she possibly be having a child? So he went away and an angel advised him of what was happening and told him to return."
Though not yet set up, she usually has a pole raised above the rest of the scene, on which Jesus is seen ascending to heaven amid a swirl of angel hair. She begins setting her yard up in early November. It stays up each year until Epiphany in early January.
She's never had a problem with vandalism in all these years, but the elements take a toll. "The wind is the worst. That blows everything down. The rain also can be bad: The figures get soaked and that's when the feet dissolve, arms will disintegrate or break off and the paint might come off."
Some of her figurines are more than 50 years old, but she keeps repairing and repainting them. Her hand trembles a little, so she has to get one of her granddaughters to paint the tiny eyes for her now.
Velarde says she will keep doing the Nativity as long as they live at the house, which she has some worries about. The farm has passed on to a younger generation and she fears they might have other uses for the house someday. She and her husband have a trailer they can move into, but she would have no place for her manger.
"I think it will be my death if I can't continue doing this," she said. "It's the only hobby that brings me happiness. If the people who come here enjoy it also, good. But to me, the joy is making the display. My grandchildren say, 'Wait, Grandmother, don't start so early,' but I'm excited to begin working on it. I never feel weighted down by doing it."
Times contributor Rose Apodaca assisted in this article.