Santa Ana’s annual Boca de Oro Festival has surely come a long way since its beginnings in 2016, when first ideated and designed by founders Madeleine Spencer and Robyn MacNair. 

With an expected attendance of 7,000 visitors for this year’s in-person events, Boca de Oro has become a staple for the community, as well as with local students and teachers in Santa Ana, as it brings together local, regional and national artists for people to interact with and explore the art world. 

The free festival kicks off Saturday with keynote speaker Marytza Rubio at noon at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, with activities and performances occurring throughout downtown Santa Ana all day through 10 p.m.

Santa Ana native and author Marytza Rubio is this year’s chosen keynote speaker, kicking off the festival at noon at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. Credit: Photo courtesy of Boca de Oro

The idea of a festival like this first came up when the Santa Ana Unified School District was brainstorming for an event that could work with the newly board-approved Visual and Performing Arts Strategic Plan. Along with this, the city of Santa Ana had then just recently made a master plan filled with initiatives to support the youth through arts and culture. 

After doing research on community festivals and working closely with schools and businesses in the city, the Boca de Oro Festival was created. Spencer got in contact with local businesses interested in encouraging youth, while MacNair worked within the SAUSD, gathering schools to participate toward building a newer approach to arts education.

“With Boca de Oro being more than a literary festival, it recognizes, highlights and celebrates all artistic mediums as part of a beautiful spectrum of artistic disciplines,” Spencer said.

Encouraging artistic literacy, the festival showcases art through various mediums, including dance, theater, music, poetry and more. Literacy, though defined as the ability to read and write, can be applied to all other disciplines. To navigate and get a well-rounded understanding of our world, all senses are worthy of being recognized through their individual capacities to make meaning of this life. Whether students perform a monologue, create a digital art piece or compose a choreography, MacNair believes that providing resources to partake in these varying forms of expression are all vital in creating a broadly literate community.

“By creating a more artistically literate community, we give artists a reason to create and build consumers and supporters for artists,” MacNair said.

With Boca de Oro occurring in the month of March, also known as National Youth Arts Month, a central goal is to encourage creative expression in the local youth through its many community activities.

“The main focus of this festival is in building a pipeline for youth who can build relationships and connect with real BIPOC authors, artists and visual and performing arts leaders who look like them,” festival co-founder Spencer said.

Over the years, the festival has brought over 5,000 artists to downtown Santa Ana to convert the area into a space for connection and inspiration for creativity. At the festival, community members can enjoy live performances, artist talks, workshops and poetry readings. 

Giving Communities of Color the Spotlight

The keynote speaker for this year’s Boca de Oro is Marytza Rubio, a Latina author whose collection of short stories, “Maria, Maria,” is set to be published by Liveright in April. The stories are filled with wild creatures, vast landscapes and tarot cards to create imaginative worlds. 

Rubio was born and raised in Santa Ana, so the city has had a significant impact on her career. In 2016, Rubio founded Makara Center for the Arts, a nonprofit library and art center run entirely by volunteers to make literacy more accessible in the community. In her fiction, she pulls from certain sensory experiences from early in her childhood to inspire her.

“Santa Ana has had a significant impact on my fiction, both as an actual physical location and as an imagined landscape,” Rubio said. “I grew up experiencing Santa Ana as a home to the marvelous.”

Ernesto Cisneros is pictured in his classroom at Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana. He teaches reading and writing to middle school students and is the author of “Efrén Divided.” Credit: Photo courtesy of Andre Martinez

Local authors Ernesto Cisneros and Namrata Poddar will also be special guests at the Boca de Oro Festival. Cisneros is currently an eighth grade teacher at Mendez Fundamental School in Santa Ana, with 26 years of teaching under his belt. After 14 years of trying to get published, Cisneros’ fiction book, “Efren Divided” was released in March 2020 and quickly became a success, winning multiple awards and landing on the New York Times’ Top 100 list. His latest book, “Falling Short,” is also a fictional story ultimately about self-acceptance, set to be released March 15. 

Growing up with a sense of disentitlement and with family members who primarily worked service jobs, Cisneros thinks it’s great for his students and other youth to have access to events such as the Boca de Oro Festival, so that they can see there is more available to them in the world through the arts.

Poddar agrees that the fun part about Boca de Oro is that all communities of color are given a spotlight. A first-generation Asian American woman herself, Poddar is passionate about issues regarding race, gender, migration and class. Migrating to the U.S. just a year after the 9/11 attacks, Poddar said she often experienced xenophobia, misogyny and racism.

Author Namrata Poddar will be part of a discussion with fellow author Madhushree Ghosh, discussing immigrant writing and their views on South Asian dispersion within Orange County while addressing their new books “Border Less” and “Khabaar.” Credit: Photo courtesy of Boca de Oro

“These are some of the daily experiences we (migrants) navigate. They touch us deeply and they do come up,” Poddar said about how these experiences have impacted her, and why she chooses to address them in her writing. 

Poddar’s writing and editorial work is aimed at reinforcing her brown communities, with the goal of illuminating erased legacies. Moving to the States and having a Marwari ethnic background, she never really knew many people around her, let alone authors, with similar identities. She wishes she had seen her ancestors depicted from an insider’s perspective, and hopes she can change that with her own work. “Border Less,” out now, is a novel by Poddar that depicts the process of migration, with various characters navigating different levels of the class spectrum.

Local author Greta Boris, a USA Today bestselling author for her series of psychological suspense novels, “7 Deadly Sins,” will also be attending the festival this year. National authors at this year’s Boca de Oro include Victor Villaseñor and Jim Suero.

African American artist and painter Lezley Saar will be giving an artist’s talk at Saturday’s festival inside OCCCA at 1 p.m. Her artwork addresses identity, race, gender, beauty and more, and has been exhibited in museums across the world.

Boca de Oro Festival

When: Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 5

Where: Downtown Santa Ana

Info: bocadeoro.org

The festival is free to the public. No tickets are necessary, however some events may fill up fast.

The festival’s poster, illustrated by Santa Ana artist Romina Ramirez, showcases this year’s theme of “Together We Rise,” with a diverse group of youth partaking in various artistic disciplines such as painting, singing and dancing. The characters in the illustration are all rising out from below along with the symbolic phoenix, representing rebirth, hope and renewal. Credit: Photo courtesy of Boca de Oro

Flamencera Andrea Salcedo will also share her talent on the guitar with community members. Considered an international treasure by El Pais, Salcedo is the first female flamenco guitarist from Jalisco, Mexico. 

At 4th Street’s Frida Cinema, winners of SAUSD’s annual literary arts contest, LitCon, will be performing as well. The winners of LitCon will be followed by presentations from Santa Ana High’s AME (Arts, Media and Entertainment) team, SAUSD’s speech and debate team, and Godinez High theater. With dozens of performances and artist talks, the Boca de Oro Festival provides the O.C. community with a diverse set of opportunities to observe and engage with the arts and its creators. 

Some new features this year also include interactive art-making, community singing and dancing. Boca de Oro will take its resources to Birch Park, with a K-5 arts festival produced by Oasis Center International and other partners in the community. A community village at Yost parking lot will offer children and families the chance to create art through several free activities. 

In the Blue Lot, a parking lot on First Street that has been transformed into an outdoor mural exhibition by Ruben Salazar, visitors can observe cultural exchange artists including Adriana Delfin (Mexico City) and duo Matilda and Jim Vision (U.K.) adding new murals as part of Boca de Oro. 

“Together We Rise” is the overarching theme to this year’s Boca de Oro, with the overall focus of bringing people together to heal through many art forms after the trials caused by the pandemic. It will honor the spirit of healing, recovery and reconnection through the arts, similar to a phoenix rising from the ashes, as said by festival organizer Steven Homestead in a statement. After a period of low face-to-face interaction, community members, artists and local businesses alike are all eager to gather once again and experience the arts together.

“As we come together in joyful communing and creative engagements, we slough off the years of isolation, sorrow, suffering and loss and join as humans to embrace the good and our humanity,” co-founder MacNair said.

Crystal Henriquez is a contributing for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at crystalh774@gmail.com.


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