by Traci Hukill
Sept. 30, 2013— Let me just say at the outset that I’m completely biased in favor of autumn festivals in an adobe environment.
In New Mexico, where I grew up, one of the highlights of September was the Santa Fe Fiestas, a four-day shindig on the Santa Fe plaza that kicked off with the bizarre burning of Zozobra, a 50-foot effigy representing all the disappointments of the last year. This was a roaring party and a feast for the senses: fiestas always came at a gorgeous time in the high desert, a season of gold slanting sunlight, deep blue skies and cold nights, and everywhere the sharp smell of roasting Hatch chiles.
To this day, the sight of autumn light on adobe walls has the Proustian effect of making me want to celebrate something. Anything! And Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks is giving Santa Cruz a reason to party: the comeback of the Mission Adobe, which narrowly escaped closure during the 2012 state parks crisis. On Saturday, Oct. 5, from 11am to 4pm, the state historic park plaza overlooking downtown will fill with food, dancing, music and kids’ activities like tortilla making, leather braiding and the ever-popular piñata obliterating.
If you haven’t been to Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park (and most people haven’t, despite the fact that it’s literally steps from the town clock), you’re in for a treat. Tucked on the edge of the bluff above the Mission-Cedar Street intersection, it overlooks all of downtown, with a sightline clear to the sea. A newish concrete plaza is the perfect place for parties, but the old plaza, a gracious expanse of dusty yard shaded by two massive redwoods and the second-oldest avocado tree in California, has the magic. Rustic tables and plenty of shade make it an inviting place to picnic or just chill for a while, comfortably near the bustle of downtown but utterly apart from it.
This being the inaugural Mole & Mariachi Festival, grownups will get to do what grownups do best: eat, drink and be merry. In honor of the culture that brought us the Mission and so much else, the festival will feature a friendly mole competition among local restaurants, with a panel of celebrity judges and voting by you, The People. Confirmed competitors include Café Carlos of Scotts Valley; El Palomar and El Jardin of Santa Cruz; El Chipotle, La Cabana and Tortilla Flats of Soquel; Manuel’s of Aptos and My Mom’s Mole of Watsonville.
Making mole, a traditional Mexican sauce, is a heroic undertaking that requires hours of time and wicked attention to detail. (We now know this from experience. Long story short, mole preparation that begins at 7pm on a Friday will continue with nonstop frying, toasting, grinding and stirring until 1am on a Saturday and use every bowl, pan and pot in the house.) The results, though, are transcendent. Expect dark layers of flavors combining aromatic spices, seeds and even chocolate with tomatillos, garlic and lots of chiles. We advise eating a small breakfast before this one and wearing loose clothing. You will want to eat, and then you will want to eat some more.
Don’t much care for mole? Have a seafood tostada from La Marea of the Sea, about a half-dozen of Jesus Lopez’s churros or a few scoops of Mission Hill Creamery ice cream. Libations will be provided by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Discretion Brewing, with roving music by Mariachi Nuevo Jalisco, Jalisco harpist William Faulkner and Trio Sol de Mexico. Dancing and twirling will be brought to you by Estrellas de Esperanza Folkloric Group and the Groupo Folklorico Los Mejicas de UCSC.
The Mole & Mariachi Festival celebrates the rescue of the nearly 200-year-old Mission Adobe. The oldest building in Santa Cruz County, it was constructed of mud and straw by Ohlone and Yokut slaves in 1822-24 as a dormitory for the Indian neophytes of the Mission. Only four of the adobe's original 17 rooms remain, but you get the sense of another era when you walk through these cool, thick-walled rooms—all that remain of the original Mission Complex.
The state of California bought the “Neary-Rodriguez Adobe” from the Neary family and opened it as a state historic park in 1991, then put it on a parks closure list in 2011 due to budget problems. Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks intervened and took over management and operations of the park for three years, from 2012 to 2015. Proceeds from Mole & Mariachi will benefit the park’s operation, keeping it open for local third- and fourth-grade tours, Think Local First mixers, First Friday parties, summer film festivals, enterprising tourists and occasional sack lunch picnics by homesick New Mexicans.
Mole & Mariachis revives something else that may be more familiar to Santa Cruzans: the Santa Cruz birthday party, traditionally held the first week of October to coincide with the anniversary of Gaspar de Portola’s 1769 “discovery” of Santa Cruz. Before the big annual birthday fireworks show, which ceased in 2004, Santa Cruzans celebrated their city’s founding with various versions of parties held at the Mission Adobe. Anyone remember Mission Fiesta? That was the event held from 1980 to 1990 at the Mission Adobe, with a few smaller events taking place there in the years that followed. Before Mission Fiesta was another party held at the site from the 1920s to just after World War II.
People have been partying on this plaza at this time of year for a long time. We’re honored to continue the tradition.
MOLE & MARIACHIS is Saturday, Oct. 5, 11am-4pm at the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, 144 School St., Santa Cruz. Access is from School Street, just off the modern Mission Plaza. Admission is free. Food tickets may be purchased onsite; a $10 tasting ticket gets you tastes of 10 moles and a ballot.
Parking: There will be limited parking at the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park and around the Mission Plaza. You can also park downtown and take one of two staircases up to the event: one on Mission near the intersection with Cedar Street and one on North Pacific Avenue, by Los Pinos restaurant.
The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park is open to the public Thursday-Saturday, 10am-4pm, and Mondays 10am-4pm in October 2013. Admission is free.