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Far from home, Oaxacan community in Taft celebrates their saint San Pablo

Luisa Bautista Bautista and the other dancers wear their traditional Oaxacan dresses at the San Pablo celebration in Taft on January 25, 2022.
Madi Bolanos
Luisa Bautista Bautista and the other dancers wear their traditional Oaxacan dresses at the San Pablo celebration in Taft on January 25, 2022.

Valentino Bautista Silva is the president of the San Pablo Federation in Taft. As music blared across a dirt lot near Taft, he makes sure things are going smoothly during this year’s annual celebration of San Pablo. The event, celebrated on January 25, honors the saint for whom their village in Oaxaca is named.

He watches people make their way to the food area, where they’re served white rice, chicken with mole, and tortillas. He says the migration of Oaxacan residents to Taft dates back to 1997. They came out of economic necessity, he says.

“The first person who came here was named Margarito Cruz Silva,” he says in Spanish. “He came to Taft and then returned to San Pablo and told everyone there was work here.”

Twenty-four years later, Valentino says about 700 people from their village – or nearly 50% of the village population – now live in Taft. Most of them work in the fields, picking grapes, mandarins, and pistachios.

“For that reason they say they have to celebrate San Pablo here in Taft,” he says, “because he is their saint.”

On the opposite side of the food tent, about 13 women congregate. They’re getting ready for their dance performance later in the evening. It’s one way they celebrate the saint.

Luisa Bautista Bautista is wearing a white dress that stops at her calves. It’s embroidered with green trimming and on her chest there are two swans facing each other. She’s wearing a chunky bright orange necklace on top.

“It’s our tradition,” she says in Spanish. “We always wear these clothes in Oaxaca, every day. Now here the young people wear pants, and some of the older generations do too, but we never lose our traditions, we bring them here.”

The celebration of San Pablo was canceled the last two years due to the pandemic. But now, with permits from the city of Taft, they are able to get together again with their community. Luisa Bautista Bautista says they were eager to celebrate again because it’s a way to feel closer to their family back in Oaxaca.

“We can’t be there in San Pablo,” she says, “so we celebrate here because there are alot of people from the village here in Taft.”

Two hours into the celebration, nine men walk into the center of the festivities, each playing a trombone, trumpet or drum. They’re from a neighboring community in Oaxaca called Santo Domingo Progresso. Juan Aurenio Cruz Garcia says these instruments are another part of their community’s celebration of the saint.

“All the communities on one side of San Pablo, Oaxaca play music for the celebrations,” he says. “And because we can’t do that there, we’re bringing it to today’s celebration in Taft.”

The band plays and slowly people start to make their way to the center of the dance floor. Nearly 500 people begin to dance in Taft the way they would have back home in Oaxaca.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.