Calexico: Festival can bring town together

April 23, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Organizers of the upcoming Mariachi Festival Sin Fronteras here hope the week-long series of events leading up to the festival unite this city's residents as the International Desert Cavalcade once did.

Each April during the 1940s and 1950s the city hosted the cavalcade.

Thousands of colorfully dressed children from all over the Imperial and Mexicali valleys would parade through the streets of Mexicali and Calexico to commemorate the discovery of the area by Spanish explorer Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza. The cavalcade also featured costumed riders on horses dressed as the legendary explorer and his party.

Following the cavalcade an elaborate play was staged at Calexico's golf course near the New River to remind locals how the shifting desert sands at the base of Mount Signal were settled at the turn of the century by tough-as-nails investors and plowed into fertile land yielding bountiful amounts of produce.


Hundreds of people participated in the play that was similar in scope to the annual Ramona pageant staged each year in Central California. Thousands of people came from all over to witness the spectacle.

Following the cavalcade and play, a gala governor's ball was conducted for attendees dressed in their finest. Actual governors, including Gov. Earl Warren, attended.

The organizing committee of Calexico's 94th anniversary celebration and the accompanying mariachi festival hopes the festival becomes a similar anchor event on Calexico's calendar around which modern-day Calexicans can rally. The mariachi festival historically has been in the more northern parts of Imperial County but this May makes its first appearance in Calexico.

Chamber Executive Director Hildy Carillo-Rivera said, "Hopefully that will be the thing we have every year — the mariachi festival."

She said it's possible that in future years elements from the cavalcade could be adopted to coordinate with the festival. For instance, one night preceding the festival, Calexicans could stage a rewritten version of the cavalcade's play, she said.

Calexico Mayor John Rension seconded that idea. He said staging a retooled version of the play would be a great way to honor Calexico pioneers.

The last time the play was performed was 1979 at Ward Field.

Trying to re-establish the cavalcade with a new Afro-wearing, disco-loving audience didn't quite work then but Renison thinks the chances are good the play could be bought back as part of the mariachi festival.

"We feel that maybe because of the change in the culture this is a good fit," he said.

As for how the cavalcade faded in the late 1950s and flopped when it was brought back, Carrillo-Rivera said, "It's a lot of work and you have to have a community support. A few people can't do it."

Longtime Calexican Frank Britton agrees. Britton participated in the last cavalcade at Ward Field. He played Father Fout, a priest in de Anza's party.

"It was a lot of fun," he remembers.

But it was not the same.

He remembers some of the truly magical moments from the event's past, when people from all over the state traveled to Calexico's golf course near the New River to see a massive production.

Asked if it would be possible to bring back the excitement of those halcyon days, he said, "Well … never say never, but it's rather unlikely."

He said people today don't have the same energy and ambition.

"The majority of the people here are just not interested. At the end of the day they are shot, mad at the world. They want to go home slosh down a six-pack and disappear into oblivion," he said. Those who aren't "shot" aren't taking the time to bring back the desert cavalcade.

Britton sighed and said, "It's too bad John Steppling (longtime editor of the Calexico Chronicle) couldn't have lived for another 50 years."

Carrillo-Rivera also credited Steppling for being a driving force behind the cavalcade. Steppling died in 1998.

Carrillo-Rivera remembers when the cavalcade was in its literal heyday.

"It was the biggest deal. I've got pictures of myself when I was 3 or 4 years old dressed as a cowgirl and my mom was dressed for a big hootenanny or whatever," she said.

She said the annual staging of the play helped her learn why there's a "Rockwood School" or why Heber is named Heber, and she hopes that future generations get the same chance.

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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