A Page from History: Point Loma ready to continue the tradition of Festa May 21-23
Isabel of Aragon was promised to Diniz, the crown prince of Portugal, when she was only 10 years old. She became a teenage bride, and later queen, when Diniz ascended to the Portuguese throne.
Even as a child, Isabel was renowned as a peacemaker, her mere presence having a calming effect on adult family members and others. Her devotion to charity, the poor and the Holy Spirit was legendary.
Queen Isabel made it her business to help feed the hungry, and even pressed the ladies of her court into service. It should be noted that her husband, the king, did not necessarily share Isabel’s commitment to helping the less fortunate. One evening, as Isabel was carrying bread from her table out of the castle, hidden in the folds of her apron, Diniz blocked her path and demanded to know what she was trying to conceal.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Isabel responded that she was carrying roses. Nobody’s fool, the king asked to see the roses for himself. Isabel acquiesced, unfolded her apron and the king stood amazed as she revealed ... the roses.
We haven’t looked back too much further than a century in this column — OK, maybe 130 years — but 700 years is easily a new record. Nor have we considered the miraculous in anything other than an ironic sense.
But to understand the tradition of Festa, or Festa do Espirito Santo (Feast of the Holy Spirit), we will do both. As Festa celebrates the above story of the roses — the first of several miracles ascribed to Queen St. Isabel of Portugal — we are talking about something that happened in the early 14th century. The queen, the crown, the roses are all part of a significant and venerable tradition, and Festa is nothing if not traditional.
In Point Loma, the Portuguese community has been celebrating Festa on Pentecost, the movable feast on the seventh Sunday after Easter, “only” since 1910. Of course, that is plenty long enough to make Festa the oldest cultural and religious celebration in San Diego — a three-day weekend celebration at that. This year it’s May 21-23.
Festa mixes the religious observance with food, fun, pageantry, music, service to the less fortunate, the infirm and the elderly, family, community, more food and maybe a little wine.
Zeca Rodrigues, past president of the Portuguese Historical Center on Avenida de Portugal, came to Point Loma as a teenager from Madeira, an autonomous island region of Portugal. “It was very simple the way we celebrated Festa on Madeira,” she said. “I found the celebration here, the costumes and the parade, to be mesmerizing!”
Rodrigues loves all the preparations that bring hundreds of volunteers together each year. “My sister is one of the seamstresses,” she said, “and I love to see all the kids get involved.”
Portuguese Historical Center secretary Evelyn Barandiaran also treasures her memories of Festa over the years. “It’s like a high school reunion and a family reunion all in one,” she said.
In the early 1920s, members of the Portuguese fishing community in Roseville envisioned the need for a community center. An extensive fundraising campaign was undertaken, spearheaded by Manuel Medina, and in 1922 the original UPSES (United Portuguese Society of the Holy Spirit) Hall was completed on Addison Street. The tiny capela, or chapel, next door was completed the same year.
The historic capela is a replica of similar chapels in the Azores. It is a place of prayer and the home of the Festa crown, or coroa, during Festa weekend.
A new and much larger UPSES Hall was completed in 1948 and continues to serve the community. The hall has hosted many dances, conferences, wedding receptions, barbecues, feasts, feeds, fish frys and, if you don’t mind having a little fun, bingo every Thursday evening.
The very successful Portuguese Market opened on the Shelter Island Drive side of the UPSES Hall in 2011.
The Portuguese Historical Center opened in 1977 on Upshur Street in a house owned by PHC founder Basil Freitas. The center found its permanent home across Addison Street from the UPSES Hall in 1990. Its mission is “to encourage civic and community involvement in the preservation of Portuguese culture, folklore and history.”
The center houses an excellent little museum, a gift shop and the archives of the PHC. The many activities include walking tours of the community (recommended!), a scholarship program and even Portuguese language classes. The center is open from noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays and by appointment. For more information, visit phcsandiego.com.
Festa always begins with a blessing of the UPSES Hall kitchen as rose petals are sprinkled over kitchen volunteers. A family in the community is chosen by drawing each year to host Festa. In years past a boat captain typically was chosen and the boat itself would be named as Festa host.
The host chooses a young woman from the community, frequently a daughter or niece, to serve as Festa queen and represent Queen St. Isabel. The queen chooses two friends to be her side maids. The girls’ dresses are beautiful works of art and also very traditional.
The Saturday of Festa is filled with many activities at the hall and outside in the parking lot. Music, games, booths and plenty of food mark the celebration.
Sunday brings the Festa parade as well as the traditional and complimentary sopas meal — beef and cabbage in a beef broth over bread, an homage to another miracle attributed to Queen St. Isabel.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Enough with the sopas already, what about the linguiça?!” Fine, then plan ahead for pickup of authentic Portuguese linguiça sandwiches Friday evening.
The parade, with floats, bands, children and many elaborate costumes, is always a highlight of Festa.
“I was one of those kids who was in the parade but didn’t want to be,” Barandiaran said. “I had to wear a scarf for two days before, with my hair rolled and ragged, including at the bazaar on Saturday! I loved my dresses, but they were itchy to wear. I wore my Festa dress on Halloween a couple of times.”
Rick Xavier said his sisters still tease him about a costume his mother persuaded him to wear in the early 1960s. “It was a silk outfit with these knickers, and kind of a poofy hat with a white feather. I said, ‘Mom, really?’”
In those days, another Festa parade was held at Our Lady of the Rosary in Little Italy. “I had to walk in that one, too,” Xavier remembered. “So I was humiliated twice.”
In 1993, the Roseville section of Addison Street, roughly between St. Agnes Catholic Church and the UPSES Hall, was renamed Avenida de Portugal. So yes, it still fits in alphabetically.
Like most everything else, Festa was forced to take 2020 off. It is back this year, although not at full strength. For details, go to upses.com.
The Portuguese Historical Center will be open all three days of Festa.
“It is an incredible tradition,” Rodrigues said. “Festa is the glue that brings the community back.”
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). Basic membership in the Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $15 annually, tax-deductible.