3rd Mole & Mariachi Festival

Year Three is a charm as the popular Mole & Mariachi Festival adds more musical acts and home chefs to the party at the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe.

by Traci Hukill

Sept. 15, 2015—Legend has it that mole, the national dish of Mexico, was created in response to a crisis. When the nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla were served notice that the Archbishop would be dropping by, so the story goes, they had a 16th-century version of a hostess freakout. This was like a member of the royal family visiting your village, and the impoverished sisters had nothing to offer but a tough old turkey and what few spices remained in the pantry. Prayer followed, then inspiration, and by grinding and creatively mixing an unlikely combination of ingredients—chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, day-old bread, fruit and even a bit of chocolate—they created a flavorful and completely original sauce that managed to please even a prince of the church. Mole, from the Aztec word for "mix," was born.

Up to 30 ingredients can go into a traditional mole. Hilltromper photo.

Subtract the panic (and, well, pretty much all the specifics), and you have the outlines of how the Mole & Mariachi Festival came to be. In 2013, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks had been the stewards of the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park for a year, having stepped in to save the underappreciated downtown park from closure in 2012. But 200-year-old adobes don't take care of themselves, and FoSCSP needed to raise money in order to keep the Mission Adobe open to the public and visiting schoolchildren. As with the sisters of Santa Rosa, need plus inspiration equaled a good idea, in this case for a festival celebrating the Mission's cultural heritage. With help from many hands—restaurant chefs, musical groups, local vendors and volunteers—the first Mole & Mariachi Festival happened. An estimated 1200 people, far more than organizers had dared to hope for, showed up to taste mole, cast their votes for the best sauce, dance and celebrate. The 2013 festival was a huge success.

Read about the history of the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe.

Mariachi Juvenil Alma de Mexico is keeping the mariachi tradition alive. Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks photo.

Year Two built on that success, bringing in 2000 guests from all over Santa Cruz County and beyond. This year the Festival, like a time-tested recipe, consolidates lessons learned and refines its formula. No fewer than four mariachi bands—double the number from last year—will take the stage. The popular Mariachi Gilroy returns from 2014 (3pm), and Trio del Sol reprises its 2013 appearance (1:45pm), while Gilroy-based Mariachi Alma de Mexico and its youth division, Mariachi Juvenil Alma de Mexico, add to the fun. The teenage boys and girls of Mariachi Juvenil, which performs at 11am and 1pm, are sure to be crowd favorites. Mariachi Alma de Mexico takes the stage at 11:30am. Returning folk dancing favorites Estrellas de Esperanza will be joined by Centeotl Grupo de Danza y Baile.

Click here for the 2015 Mole & Mariachi Festival Schedule of Events.

Two home cooks will participate in the mole competition alongside the pros from El Chipotle, El Jardin, My Mom's Mole and India Joze. And in an effort to improve the flow through the Mission Adobe courtyard, some rearranging is taking place. This year the mole contestants' booths will be lined up in front of the Adobe, while the musical stage and dancing area will be in the far corner near the Mission Street staircase. On the patio, food vendors El Chipotle, Taqueria Lidia, Sazon Mexico, Garcia Fish Tacos and The Penny Ice Creamery will feed the masses, while beer from Discretion Brewing and chavelas (beer, tomato juice and spices) will slake the most serious thirst.

Meanwhile, piñatas every hour, a running raffle, crafts vendors and tours of the Mission will keep the party going. We hear the popular mojiganga dancers will be back to add the special touch only giant papier-mache puppets can bring to a shindig.

Endless Varieties of Mole

Whatever the entertainment, the mole is always going to be a major attraction of this festival, and for good reason. Made with as many as 30 ingredients, a good mole contains depths of flavor that simpler sauces just don't achieve. Like a curry or a good French brown sauce, it's the final product of many steps, each adding a wealth of dimension to the flavor.

El Chipotle serves up a delicious spicy mole at the 2014 Mole & Mariachi Festival. Hilltromper photo.

Mole competition participant Cesario Ruiz of My Mom's Mole, who has been teaching classes on preparing the sauce, says the varieties of mole found in Mexico are practically infinite, first because each region's mole uses ingredients found only locally. "In certain regions of Mexico people will grow different dried peppers. And because most of the real culture is kept in the little villages, people only use what is harvested in their areas. They can't go get chiles from another state."

Beyond that, though, each cook adds her or his own touch. "It’s really fascinating," he says. "In one class, we had four different groups cooking with the same recipe with all the same ingredients, and when we sat down we had four completely different flavors, believe it or not. I think what takes over at the end is if you have to roast your nuts, how long do you roast them for? How well do you toast them? That really influences the final product." (Click here to learn about Ruiz's upcoming monthly classes on making mole.)

Like all the participants, Ruiz will be preparing 8 gallons of mole to bring to the festival. "I hope to leave with nothing," he says cheerfully. "That's the point: to give it away."

Funding the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe

Bonny Hawley, executive director of the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, says Mole & Mariachi Festival has helped keep the Mission Adobe in good shape and open to the public.

The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park is now open to visitors Thursday-Monday. Hilltromper photo.

Proceeds from the 2013 festival helped renovate the patio overlooking downtown Santa Cruz. Proceeds from the 2014 Mole & Mariachi Festival helped the Mission Adobe expand its hours to five days a week, up from four. The park is now open every day year round except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

This year, says Hawley, the goal is to make repairs to the adobe ahead of its 25th anniversary as a state park open to the public, which it marks in 2016. "We just received a consultant's report that we commissioned to do a stem-to-stern look at the building and what needs to be repaired and maintained," she says. "The next step is getting a cost estimate and figuring out how we're going to pay for it."

Issues include crumbling plaster and mud on the adobe's exterior and the floors, which need work in order to ensure visitor safety.

As the highlight of the annual Summer Series at the Mission Adobe, the Mole & Mariachi Festival is an important way to keep the park in the public's mind, and FoSCSP works to keep it fresh. "We have been trying to make improvements every year and add new features," Hawley says. "I think this year is going to be great for families and foodies."

THE 2015 MOLE & MARIACHI FESTIVAL is Saturday, Sept. 19, 11am-5pm at the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, 144 School St, Santa Cruz. Admission is free; mole tasting kits are $10.

Click here for the 2015 Mole & Mariachi Festival Schedule of Events.

View the Google map of the Mission Adobe area. Park nearby or in the parking garages at Locust/Cedar and Cedar/Church (50 cents/hour; ATM accepted) and ride the free trolley. Trolleys will stop by the garages every 10-15 minutes.