El Día de San Juan is a day for musicians to serenade people named Juan or Juana at dawn, for family picnics by sources of water, and for engaging in water fights and bathing. Because water was used in the baptizing of Jesus, it was believed to have special powers on this day. For example, if one had eye problems, cures were sought by washing one's eyes in a stream.
La Fiesta de San Juan begins with a religious procession carrying a statue of St. John the Baptist to his customary altar to preside over the fiesta-- followed by a blessing ceremony performed by Aztec dancers. There follows an evening of live music and dance, games, piñata-breaking for kids, and food & craft vendors.
Historically, the fiesta also included lively celebrations and competitions on horseback. From the late 19th Century into the early 20th, there was a popular sport called Corrida de Gallos (Rooster Game). It involved burying a rooster up to its neck in sand while young men on horseback took turns racing towards it, attempting to pull it out of the ground as they galloped by. Due to its violence it was eventually discontinued. For many years, incredible young charras (horsewomen) known as Escaramuzas ("skirmish") put on rousing performances conducting elaborate dressage maneuvers at a full gallop, riding sidesaddle. Sadly, this rich tradition has been absent in recent Fiesta de San Juan's.
In my painting, I have tried to capture the essences of the many peoples and factions that give summer its meaning here in Sonoran Arizona:
- The first is Elder Brother, I'itoi - The Man in the Maze - a sacred Tohono O'odham symbol for Creation and a directive for following life's right path. The spiral design, so common in nature, also signifies the circular nature of birth, life, and return. I'itoi sets the timelessness backdrop of summer seasons here in the Sonoran Southwest.
- The sky-blue & white shrine to La Virgen De Guadalupe, also known as Tonanztín (her pre-Hispanic Aztec name), presides over this desert land from A-Mountain, the geological landmark overlooking Tucson's Birthplace. This shrine to the Lady was built on the mountain by local firefighters. She overlooks the sweeping intersection at Star Pass and Mission Roads, and is kept clean and seasonally decorated by Barrio Kroeger Lane residents.
- No Fiesta de San Juan is complete without the accompaniment of the stirring and passionate sound of Mariachi music. Originating in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Mariachi has taken the U.S. Southwest by storm in recent generations, and is now performed by students from all ethnic backgrounds. Fiestas are prime venues for local youth Mariachi groups to show off their talents as musicians and vocalists of the highest order.
- Next is an apparition of St. John the Baptist, pouring water from an abalone shell, blessing the desert earth. The abalone, or "Blue Shell", was a sacred item to indigenous tribes and was also endeared by Padre Eusebio Kino. The Gila Pimas gave Kino a gift of a cross strung with these beautiful shells.
- Below St. John is an Escaramuza horsewoman; in this case, a real Tucsonense charra named Clarissa, on her beloved horse, Borracho. The two performed in many San Juan Fiestas together, and Borracho had recently died at the ripe old age of 30. I wanted to honor them both for their integral part in Tucson's history.
- Fiestas are also a standard venue for baile folklorico dances - often performed by student groups from local schools. Just as mariachi is the signature music of Mexico, baile folklorico is its signature partner in dance. Each region of Mexico boasts its own style of folklorico, with unique costumes that symbolize the culture of each particular region.
- Finally, there is the female Aztec dancer who kneels in reverence with her offering of copal incense to the Creator. Copal is the highly aromatic resin of a tree native to Mexico (Bursera cuneata and B. bipinnata) that is believed to connect to the mystical and sacred. It is used throughout Mexico, Central America, and the U. S. Southwest in festivities and ceremonies for rain, good crops, funerals, and on altars during Los Días de Muertos (Days of the Dead).