Conversion is not only a religious phenomenon, one can have a cultural conversion as well. What I am saying is that for me conversion is about falling in love with the unknown, the unfamiliar, allowing yourself to undergo a transformation or transfiguration into another way of seeing and even being in the world. Conversion for me is about allowing yourself to become imbedded in a new relationship to the world and other people, by surrendering and allowing what is different between your culture and another to really get under your skin.
The conversion I have had, which I will share about here, was in the Mexican culture’s way of celebrating children. This kind of cultural conversion caused me to I fall in love with The Mexican Festival known as Día del Nino (The Day of the Child), an important celebration brought to us each year by El Centro Cultural de Mexico and Arts OC. It is an event that is one part of Orange County’s Imagination Celebration which specifically takes place each year in Downtown Santa Ana.
The event occurs annually, during the month of April, which is also the month of my birth and the beginning of Spring. In the place where I grew up, on 20 acres of wilderness in Montana, all the new wild and domestic animals are being born during this season from the roaming bison in the Gallatin Gateway to deer or even litters of new puppies at the homes of our neighbors, what you find in the spring is that new life is present everywhere. In Santa Ana California, the celebration of this life is in the Day of the Child which celebrates the beauty and gift of generations in our children. In Santa Ana, the event is held in a beautiful little Park Downtown known as Birch Park. And I remember distinctly the very first moment that I fell in love.
I was meandering around the beautiful space enclosed by the thick foliage and shade of the beautiful old trees in Birch park. I was watching as throngs of families were milling about happily. Some families sat together sharing food in the grass, listening to talent of national and local artists performing on a stage. Other children filled the park milling around between workshops of music, painting, making their own mini guitars called a “jarana jarochas” out of cardboard cut outs and string. As the children sat with their parents making art they were listening to real Son Jarocho musicians who played beside them.
I watched children building their own little cities in the grass, amidst piles of life size Lego-like bricks and blocks of blue. And I also saw children showing off their faces to their friends, siblings and parents, painted with butterflies and flowers on their cheeks and hands with whatever images they had asked for. I saw children walking around holding plants that they had been taught, by a local farmer, to grow from a seed. Yet, the workshop that really caught my heart and caused my conversion was when I walked through a covered area with a table piled with old newspaper and magazines, string, tape, paint and all kind of craft materials.
I remember, I stood watching, riveted as children sitting all around the table were busily making their own dolls. The children were as young as three and four years old. They were all industriously working to ball up the newspaper creating heads and arms for their dolls. The children were putting the whole thing together with strong tape and later dressing the doll with cloth and yarn, painting on their faces and shoes. The project in was truly unbelievable.
At last, I was thoroughly surprised when, I saw a parent come up to their child, who had to be around four years old. The child had almost completed her doll and when her parent came to pick it up, I was shocked to see the child quickly grabbed her doll jealously and hold it close to her chest, as if suggesting wait I am not done, and this is my doll! I was blown away that this pile of newspaper, which the children was rapidly being transformed, had suddenly become very real for the child, in her reaction. Even while the doll, was in fact a product the child had created themselves. I was completely stunned, overtaken as I thought about consumption and all the ridiculous amounts of money parents spend each year purchasing toys that others tell them is popular, while children have every capacity to create the toys they play with, themselves. The event was breaking down consumer patterns by showing it being done.
I was marveled that children were being taught in the festival that they have the capacity to be producers rather than merely a consumer of goods. And was amazed at all the creativity and talent liberated within them. When I left this doll workshop area, I was overcome. I again scanned the park which was a place filled with laughter and children playing and knew that this was an amazing event. I was hooked.
El Centro Cultural de Mexico puts on this festival each year, it is only days away now on Sunday April 30th. It is my hope that you will come and see the marvel for yourself, and perhaps you too will find yourself in a cultural conversion that celebrates the child within.
You can get more information about Día del Nino (The Day of the Child) here.
Madeleine Spencer is a Santa Ana community activist.
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