The Return of Mole & Mariachis

It's all about tradition at the 2nd Annual Mole and Mariachis Festival, coming up next weekend at the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe—traditional food, traditional music and traditional dancing.

by Traci Hukill

Sept. 10, 2014—This week Gloria Yslava is making vegetable stock from scratch, Ruby Vasquez is drilling the young dancers of Estrellas de Esperanza on steps and smiling, and restaurant chefs around Santa Cruz County are double-checking their ingredient lists for gallons of mole, the complex traditional sauce of southern Mexico. A grand festival of Mexican culture is coming to the old Santa Cruz Mission, and nothing is being left to chance.

When the 2nd Annual Mole and Mariachi Festival happens on Saturday, Sept. 20 at the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe State Historic Park, it will be as follow-up to an successful inaugural fundraiser for the park, which has been operated by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks since 2012. Last year’s festival brought an estimated 1,200 people to the shaded courtyard on a hot Indian summer day to listen to music, watch dancers, drink cold beverages and sample moles of all kinds: spicy, chocolatey, sweet, hot. Proceeds from last year’s festival helped fund the revamp of the patio, which was extended and outfitted with a scenic overlook.

Read about the 2013 Mole and Mariachis Festival in Mmm-mmm Mole.

This year the performers and participants are again eager to share their traditions with the diverse crowd this event is likely to draw.

“My grandmother taught us how to make mole,” says Gloria Yslava, who entered the mole competition via the festival’s invitation to home chefs, new this year. (Plaza Lane Optometry is sponsoring her.) “Her mother was a midwife and healer, so she grew up with a lot of herbs. When I was a teenager I would work so I could go to Mexico every year. We would hole up there out in the country where she would teach us about all kinds of herbs and spices.”

For her mole, which she describes as a cross between a sweet mole poblano and a pipian (a mole made with pumpkin seeds, “from my home state of Jalisco”) Yslava will make everything from scratch, starting with the broth. She’ll toast corn tortillas for the base, then add pumpkin seeds, peanuts, toasted chiles, cinnamon, cumin, chocolate and more, doing all the prep work she can ahead of time. There’s no recipe card—just the principles her grandmother taught her.

“She taught a lot of family members how to cook without recipes but by taste, so I don't ever go by, ‘a half a cup of this, a half a cup of that,’” says Yslava. “I can never cook that way.”

Folklorico and Mojiganga Dancers

Tradition also guides the dancers of Estrella de Esperanza, who range in age from kindergarten through high school.

“The mariachi music featured comes from Jalisco,” explains dance teacher Ruby Vasquez, “so the dances the kids are doing also come from the state of Jalisco.”

Among the dances on tap are “Los Machetes,” which uses replicas of the indispensable Latin American tool to celebrate a way of life; the familiar love song “Son de la Negra;” and “El Gavilancillo,” in which the boys don serapes around their shoulders to simulate flying hawks.

“I try to convey the message that yes, it’s fun and yes, it’s exercise and yes, it’s a physical activity, but it’s also more than that,” says Vasquez. “They’re performing dances that originated way back in the day. It’s so cool that we’re dancing at the Mole Festival, because we get to highlight the traditional dances along with the traditional food and the traditional music.”

One of the greatest treats about the Mole and Mariachis Festival is the chance to see the mojiganga dancers—giant dancing puppets brought from Spain to Mexico in the 1600s. “Big heads,” as they’re sometimes called, spin around the dance floor operated by people peering through slats in the puppets’ torsos.

Juan Martinez, leader of the mojigangas troop, says he got interested in the puppets after seeing them perform many times in his hometown of Huacao, Michoacan. “I noticed that the ‘mojigangas’ brought a lot of joy to the audience,” he told Hilltromper in an email. “They bring a lot of happiness and excitement, but most of all they bring laughter to both children and adults.”

(Should you need another mojiganga fix after Mole and Mariachis, you can catch them Dec. 12 at the festivities of the virgin of Guadalupe at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church in Watsonville.)

Music and Food

This year the festival will bring in Mariachi Gilroy and Mariachi Sonora to play music while the dancers twirl and the chefs serve up samples of mole to festivalgoers who buy the $10 mole tasting kit (a plate and tortilla chips). Participating restaurants include El Jardin, El Chipotle, Lidia’s Taqueria, El Chino, Discretion Brewing, My Mom’s Mole, Viva’s and Maya.

If you’re feeling peckish after sampling mole, you can eat at the food booths staffed by Garcia’s Fish Tacos, El Jardin and Sazon Mexicano and finish with sweets by Chocolate (mole truffles, anyone?) and Mission Hill Ice Creamery. Libations come courtesy Discretion Brewing, Lagunitas Brewery and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards. Kids activities, like tortilla making and piñatas, will keep the small fry entertained while adults wander the artisan booths and consider raffle tickets.

Jolly Trolleys

Because parking on Mission Hill is limited, festival organizers decided this year to offer free trolley rides from downtown. They’ll deliver people to the festival every 12 minutes, picking up passengers at two trolley stops: in front of the Del Mar Theatre and on Locust Street in front of the Locust Street Garage.

“[It] should help relieve parking congestion around the park, as well as be a fun-filled way to start the festival,” explains Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.

Additionally, free bike valet will be available at the festival to encourage two-wheeled transportation.

With preparations for the big event already underway, Hawley says her group is hoping for another successful festival. “Last year’s bicultural event brought together families and friends from North County, South County and beyond—all eating, dancing and celebrating together," she says. "We hope for the same happy time again this year!”

The 2nd Annual Mole and Mariachis Festival is Saturday, Sept. 20, 11am-5pm at the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe Historic State Park, 144 School St, Santa Cruz. Admission is free, but mole tasting kits are $10.