“The theme this year is ‘Todos Juntos en Familia.’ Do you know what that means?”
That was a question posed to the News-Press during an interview with Maria Cabrera, La Presidente for this year’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta, which begins today in Santa Barbara.
While “Todos Juntos en Familia” translates into English as “all together as a family,” Mrs. Cabrera made clear that the meaning ran deeper than just those words.
“What that means is that because of the way the Latinos and Hispanics are about hospitality, they will embrace someone really quickly and make them part of the family,” she explained before going into a colorful hypothetical from her native home of Colombia.
“So let’s say that you’re a tourist in Colombia and you’re in Cali, and you’re lost and you’re looking for something,” she began. “And you approach somebody and you say, ‘I need to go to this place,’ and then they’ll tell you, ‘Here’s how to go. Or you know what, let me take you in my car right now!’ And in a 20-minute ride you’ve exchanged information about yourselves, and then they’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re having a little get together at my mother’s, do you want to come over tonight? Here’s the address.’
“And you arrive and there’s 150 people celebrating the mama’s birthday. You’re in familia. You are now a member of the family.”
“It’s becoming. It’s an act. It’s an embracing,” she continued. “It’s like, ‘I met you this morning, but I took you to visit whatever it was that you got lost trying to find, and then I invited you to do something and you agreed to it and now you know who I am and I know who you are.’”
This act of embracing each other as family, and of the exchange of hospitality, is deeply rooted in her understanding of Fiesta, Mrs. Cabrera explained.
“You’re waiting for the parade, you’re sitting there under an umbrella, sipping some jamaica or something, and you have your tortas or whatever, and you’re waiting,” she said.“So you talk to (the people around you) and they talk to you and they say, ‘Oh where’s the best place to eat tortas?’ or ‘Where’s the best tacos? You know we’ve just arrived, we’ve never been here before.’ And you say to them, ‘Oh yeah ,go to here and here.’ You’re in familia.
“All of sudden the barriers are down. We’re all together. We’re all enjoying it. Todos juntos en familia. It’s that type of hospitality where you do things for the family.”
Family and community were some of the primary reasons Presidente Cabrera got involved with Fiesta almost 30 years ago as a volunteer parade announcer.
“We arrived (in Santa Barbara) in 1983 when my husband came here to work for Raytheon,” Mrs. Cabrera, who’s married to Francisco Cabrera, told the News-Press. “We already had our daughter, and the next year we had our son. So you start becoming part of the town by attending different festivals.
“And if you know this town, (you would know) it used to have lots of festivals. I mean the entire month of July every weekend there was a festival at Oak Park. There was the French Festival, the Chinese Festival, the Thai Festival — and after we saw our first Fiesta, our daughter wanted to dance, and so we supported her and 28 years later, here we are.”
It was her daughter’s embrace of dance, and her belief that ordinary people can make difference in their community, that eventually guided Presidente Cabrera to join the Old Spanish Days Board of Directors in 2006.
“It’s important that people understand that I’m just a regular person. There have been accountants, lawyers, doctors, realtors, executives (who served as presidentes in the past). I’m none of those,” she explained. “I didn’t become part of the board to become a presidente. I became part of the board because of dance. I wanted to give back to the organization, because I thought there was a piece missing, and that was a dance representative — a community person who understood the dance and would be there for the dancers.”
Tradition also plays a large role in Presidente Cabrera’s understanding of Fiesta, and was one of the reasons she chose to present this year’s theme solely in Spanish rather than include an English translation as has been done in past years.
“Part of the mission of Old Spanish Days is to keep traditions alive, and one of those traditions is the language,” she explained. “Because the reason it’s ‘Old Spanish Days’ is not because we’re trying to remember Spain. We’re trying to remember the time of Alta California where Spanish was spoken.”
La Presidente also passed along some of the Fiesta traditions that she and her family keep to maintain the spirit of the celebrations through the generations.
“Try the Mercados first, and after eating at the two Mercados you have to go to (Our Lady of) Guadalupe Church. They sell fantastic tamales, fantastic tortas, enchiladas,” she said. “It’s like you’ve gone to Mexico. You all of a sudden enter this courtyard and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m in a little town outside of Guadalajara.’ Then there’s the regular normal stuff, all the restaurants and all of that.
“But that’s not Fiesta. Fiesta is the Mercados.”