Monsoon Blessings, Memories Worth Preserving

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It occurs to Josefina Lizárraga that her childhood contributed to the form and content of both her paper-flower making and her joy in fiesta. She inherited, she says, a rich store of beautiful and symbolic memories that give her a history, and stories she need to pass along.

Josefina at Tucson Meet YourselfIn her hometown of Ruiz, families were always outdoors, Josefina remembers. Fiesta was, and still is for Josefina, an abiding vehicle for community expression as well as celebration. One fiesta, El Día de San Juan, held earlier this week on June 24, is part of this history for Josefina. It is a celebration that gives Tucson life more content, meaning and narrative.

Water — intertwined with spiritual meaning and community fun — is the centerpiece of the El Día de San Juan celebration. Just as St. John cleansed the faithful in the river, the ritual of dipping in the river was important in the fiestas of Josefina’s childhood. “We would start with morning Mass, and then all the families would go to the river for a picnic.” Men and their horses would also go for symbolic dips, gathering discreetly further downstream in the waters, away from the families.

Horses for some reason always were an important part of the celebration. Josefina recalls how, when the fiesta was revived in Tucson, Father Kieran McCarty from San Xavier Mission had considered horse races as well as rodeo as part of the event. Eventually the Tucson version of El Día de San Juan fiesta included the charreada (Mexican rodeo), with escaramuzas from Florecitas Del Desierto performing precision drills at gallop speeds, riding side saddle. The escaramuza and their horses always are a colorful sight at the fiesta, with embroidered frilled dresses and horses decked with ribbons and flowers (although the Floricitas sadly did not perform this year).

Haircuts also were important rituals on this day, recalls Josefina. Some would wait all year for the feast day before cutting their hair, she says. Local barber shops got involved before this aspect of the tradition faded in Tucson.

at El Dia de San Juan (2012)
at El Dia de San Juan (2012)

Embodying the heart and soul of the fiesta for Josefina is the procession and the honor of carrying the Saint John the Baptist statue. Intricately painted and realistically carved, shipped from Spain, the statue carried in the Tucson procession this year was actually a gift from Josefina to her community years ago.

“We originally carried a statue loaned by the Yaquis of Old Pascua,” Josefina says. But over the years there was a concern that the statue would be damaged, so Josefina decided to purchase another statue for the celebration. Josefina owns the West Boutique Florist nearby St. Mary’s Hospital, which has long been a community magnet for flowers and religious articles, including milagros, holy cards, rosaries and statues. The statue was her gift, because the community needed a beautiful statue to honor the special feast, Josefina says.

To Josefina, religious articles must be works of art to properly honor the saints they commemorate. This year she helped give out rosaries and medals to the statue bearers, and had a St. John’s stamp created for the festival. “The beauty of our traditions always should be shared in our community,” she explains, simply.

Josefina’s flowers also express beauty and faith in personal ways, and each year she carefully created bouquets or crowns for the children and others in the procession. There seems to be a poem in every flower she creates, and in seeing her displays at the fiesta one understands the importance of her work for the community, as her flowers are shaped with contrasting colors and fine cutting.

Handmade traditional Yaqui paper flowers by Amalia Reyes, for El Día de San Juan demonstration.
Handmade traditional Yaqui paper flowers by Amalia Reyes, for El Día de San Juan demonstration.

El Día de San Juan began about 16 years in Tucson, with its original purpose tied to after the streets were fixed around Grande Avenue sinkholes. For many years, the fire department added to the spirit of the event by bringing their water hoses out and splashing all in symbolic gesture during the fiesta.

Fiestas transcend all boundaries – they are folkways for all to enjoy. During El Día de San Juan celebration, Tucson unites in common interest in the monsoon. Josefina hopes the fiesta’s fully contemporary and historic traditions continue to have value for all, especially the children. And may it bring us rain.

• Our Storied Desert Land with Big Jim, Jim Griffith blog, Arizona Daily Star, El Día de San Juan in Southern Arizona, multiple blog entries
• Ernesto Portillo Jr.: Busy West Side florist, 67, still has much to do, Arizona Daily Star, March 7, 2006
• To read more about Josefina’s “world of beauty” visit the Griffith Archives,

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