Citizen Staff Writer
By PAUL L. ALLEN
Today (depending on whose calendar you’re using), is either the 9th annual or 466th annual celebration of the Día de San Juan Fiesta in these parts, signaling the beginning of the much-anticipated rainy season.
The more recent figure is the one favored by the city, which rediscovered the fiesta nine years ago, and has promoted it annually since. The earlier figure dates to 1540 when Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was said to have prayed for rain over a dry Arizona wash on the feast day of St. John the Baptist and to have been answered with a sudden deluge.
So pleased with the results (and his own performance) was Coronado that he named the waterway Rio San Juan and decreed that June 24 thereafter would be a holiday to welcome the rain – and that the rain would invariably cooperate.
Such has rarely been the case, but we humans are an optimistic lot, generally speaking, and we have maintained celebrating the holiday and faithfully expecting precipitation – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – ever since.
This year’s shindig is scheduled 4 to 10 p.m. today on the west bank of the sandy Santa Cruz River, south of the Congress Street bridge, and will include a procession, a religious blessing ceremony, live entertainment and food and drink offered for sale.
While this sounds like a fun event, it is substantially more modest than celebrations of yesteryear.
• In 1859, the Weekly Arizonian reported, “First there was a horse race”; next “chicken fighting” by the Mexican population; next, a succession of free fights, which lasted, with short intermissions for the purpose of taking drinks and repairing the damages, all day . . .”
• Diarist George Hand noted in 1876: “No work, no school, no nothing among the Mexicans. Dancing, drinking and a general holiday . . .”
• In 1877, a 15-hour party at the home of John S. Warner preceded the “official” holiday, with feasting and (one would assume) sipping of a variety of beverages.
• The Tucson Citizen of 1894, wrote, “The main feature of the day will be a running race. The race will be for a mile, running, very early in the morning, and six dozen (bottles) of beer, music for five hours at the picnic to follow and $100 cash will be the stakes.”
First order of the day was celebration of Mass, followed by a procession including men who carried a likeness of St. John the Baptist.
The “chicken fighting” was of two varieties. One was cockfighting, in which one rooster with metal spurs was pitted against another in a to-the-death duel.
The other, “juego del gallo” – game of the rooster – involved burying a live rooster up to its neck in sand, and then having horsemen gallop from some distance away to see who would be first to lean in the saddle and snatch the hapless fowl from the sand by its head.
Winner of the contest then was encouraged to use what was left of the rooster to whap and humiliate the losers.
One of the “fuels” for such goings-on was a weak, home-brewed beer called tiswin or tesguin, made by mixing cracked corn, brown sugar and occasionally fruit with water and allowing it to ferment for several days.
Determined consumption would produce intoxication, a hangover and a thorough “cleansing” experience.
Horse racing was another facet of the gathering, and doubtless some money changed hands as a result of that pursuit. Horses also carried many a young man proudly riding with a lady friend – as would-be rivals tossed firecrackers at the horses’ feet, hoping to unseat and humiliate the proud equestrian.
A spring near the intersection of South Main Avenue and West Simpson Street once fed an irrigation ditch, or acequia, that flowed northward on the west side of Main Avenue. The abundance of water produced grass and cottonwood trees along the waterway, and families “in the know” arose early on fiesta day to stake out individual turfs for the day’s picnics.
Also, vendors plied the “green belt,” offering hot dogs, snow cones, popcorn and other goodies, and Tohono O’odham women sold tortillas .
Today’s celebration won’t be quite as elaborate as those of a century ago, but should be fun nonetheless.
Just don’t bother to bring along your racehorse, tiswin-chugging mug or rooster-grabbing gauntlets.
Probably not your umbrella, either. The weatherman says there’s only a 20 percent chance of precipitation, despite Coronado’s and St. John’s best efforts.
IF YOU GO
What: Día de San Juan Fiesta
When: 4-10 p.m. today
Where: South of Congress Street, west bank of the Santa Cruz River
General parking: West of Congress Street bridge, south of Congress
Parking for procession participants: North on Bonita (first street west of Congress Street bridge) in Community Services Building lot
Information: City Councilman José Ibarra’s office – 791-4040