Oaxaca in Wine Country brings Mexican state’s music, dance to Santa Rosa

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Cracking bullwhips loudly and wearing ghoulish masks topped with horns, a dozen men danced under a hot sun Sunday in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square, celebrating the culture of Oaxaca, a Mexican state with a strong presence in Sonoma County.

One of the dancers, Jesus Soriano of Napa, said the dance represents “the joys of a tradition that comes from Oaxaca,” speaking through a translator, his wife, Yuliana Rojas.

Soriano wore of black and white paisley jacket, chaps covered in flowing goat hair and a handmade wooden mask of a scowling devil with enormous, curled ram’s horns.

The dance, performed by a Napa-based troupe called Los Diablos de Oaxacalifornia, “means the devils are trying to show their elegance,” he said, admitting the day was devilishly hot.

The eighth annual Oaxaca in the Wine Country event drew several hundred people to the square for a daylong display of food, artwork, crafts, dance and music from the place many in the crowd called their origin.

No one was able to say how many Oaxacans live in Sonoma County, but Carlos Chavez, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Sonoma County, said “tons of friends” from Oaxaca were there.

“People who have moved here are bringing their culture to share with Sonoma County,” he said. “I think it enriches the lives of all of us — Anglos and Latinos — to see this.”

Lorena Ortiz, at a booth representing a Petaluma auto dealer, said she emigrated from Oaxaca in 1987 not speaking a word of English.

“Look at me now,” she said. “I’m selling vehicles.”

A U.S. citizen and a single mother of three, Ortiz said she followed her father, who left the Oaxacan village of Tejas de Morelos about a decade before her and landed in Petaluma because it was the last stop for his bus.

More than 1,000 people from that village live in Sonoma County, she said.

“Oh my God, it’s the culture, the loving people” she said, when asked what the event means. “We’re always helping each other without thinking of getting anything back.”

Eleven women and four small girls, twirling bright-colored skirts and holding decorated straw baskets on their heads, performed a traditional Oaxacan dance in a troupe from Santa Cruz called Centeotl Danza y Baile.

One of the dancers, Silvia Fernandez, a single mother of two, hails from Mexico City, where she performed for 10 years.

Some Oaxacans are especially proud of mezcal, claiming their state as the origin of the alcoholic beverage “considered the godfather of tequila,” said Julia Nolasco, a sales representative for her family’s mezcal company.

Spanish conquistadors brought distillation to the new world and applied it to agave, creating mezcal, she said.

“I like it — a lot,” said Enrique Lopez, a Oaxacan from Petaluma, lingering at the mezcal tasting booth.

“If you don’t have a bottle, you’re not Oaxacan,” added Marvin Carreno of Rohnert Park.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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