By Blanca Gonzalez, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 12:07 a.m.
POINT LOMA - When Point Loma's Portuguese immigrants staged their first community festa in 1910, the religious and social gathering was held in a house.
Over the years, the celebration of thanksgiving, history and heritage grew into an event of elaborate pageantry, with a parade featuring regally dressed girls and boys, a fireworks display, a bazaar with food booths, music and folkloric dancing, and a huge community meal for about 4,000.
The centennial of the Festa do Divino Espirito Santo kicks off Sunday with a week of activities that begins with a recitation of the Holy Rosary at the Tunaman's Memorial at Shelter Island, a fireworks display and a performance by the Portuguese Philharmonic. The main celebration comes May 23, when the tribute to the Holy Spirit starts with a parade featuring floats, marching bands and more than 900 children.
The May 23 finale also includes the traditional free meal for the community. More than 40 volunteers spend days preparing the 3,800 pounds of beef and 1,800 pounds of potatoes that go into the festa meal of sopas, a beef-and-bread soup.
Although Point Loma's tightknit Portuguese community isn't as large as it was in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when local families owned and operated more than 150 fishing boats, former residents usually come back for the festa. Some live in other parts of the county or have moved to the Los Angeles area, but many return for what's believed to be San Diego's oldest ethnic festival.
"Festa brings the community together," said Evelyn DaRosa Feliciano, president of this year's event. "We're celebrating 100 years of being together.It's history; it's our culture."
The festival comes together through the work of hundreds of volunteers, she said.
Mary Martin, 86, was festa queen in 1939 and remembers being in the parade even earlier than that when she was dressed as an angel.
"It was different in those days," Martin said. "We didn't do a lot of socializing like they do now. Everything is more elaborate now. My dress was white brocade, and my mother made my crown with lace, wiring and some rhinestones. We didn't have the elaborate crowns and expensive dresses. The parade has become much larger, and there are a lot more queens."
In addition to the main queen, who symbolizes Queen Isabel, the festival also features small queens, weekly queens and other members of the royal court, most with custom-made attire.
According to legend, Queen Isabel fed the poor from her own table, and the local Portuguese community has continued the tradition of holding a communal meal every Pentecost Sunday. Although donations are suggested, no one is turned away.
While revelry is part of the celebration at a Friday night dance, the bazaar held Friday through Sunday and the Queen's Ball on May 23, the festa stays true to its roots as a religious tradition that originated in the 13th century, when Queen Isabel paid tribute to the Holy Spirit through her devotion to the poor. Credited as a peacemaker and known for her charitable works, Isabel was canonized in the 1600s.
As president of the festival, Feliciano was responsible for organizing and fundraising. The role is an honor, said Feliciano, who's dedicating the festa to her late husband, Michael, who died of cancer in 2003.
As a cancer survivor herself, Feliciano said she's thankful for her blessings and wants to pay tribute to the Holy Spirit and give back to the community by hosting the festa.
Feliciano is representative of the local Portuguese community, which has deep roots in Point Loma. She grew up participating in the festas and was queen of the 1985 version, when her parents hosted the event. The hosts or sponsors choose the year's royalty, and Feliciano named her daughter, Karinna, queen and her son, Joshua, king.
During the heyday of San Diego's fishing industry, Portuguese tuna-boat captains took turns sponsoring the annual festa. They would pledge a portion of the proceeds from their catch to help pay for the feast and celebration. Later, when the number of fishing vessels dwindled and many relocated to other waters, a local couple would be named hosts, but fisherman continued to help fund the festa.
Manuel Leal, president of the United Portuguese SES, said the celebration is about giving back and that those who volunteer to sponsor or host the festival do it to give thanks for overcoming an obstacle or because they're thankful for a particularly good year. The United Portuguese SES, which was formed in 1922, oversees the festa and operates the Portuguese hall, built with donations from tuna fishermen, many of whom came from the Azores islands, off Portugal.
The hall, on Avenida de Portugal, was long known as the center of social activities for Portuguese immigrants and their families. Feliciano said the community and fundraising dinners at the hall used to be very popular in previous decades. "We would pack this hall for our dinners. Now, not so much," she said.
Despite the changes and growth of the event, many of the traditions are the same, said Gabriel Leal, who's in charge of the kitchen for the festa meal. "We never lose focus of why we're here."
FESTA CENTENNIAL HIGHLIGHTS
- 7 p.m. Sunday: Recitation of the Holy Rosary at the Tunaman's Memorial at Shelter Island; fireworks display; performance by the Portuguese Philharmonic
- 5:30 p.m. Friday: Flag-raising and opening of Festa Bazaar featuring Portuguese music, folkloric dancing and food booths in the parking lot of the United Portuguese S.E.S.
- 7 p.m. May 20: Novena at St. Agnes Church, candlelight procession back to the hall accompanied by Artesia Philharmonic, followed by music and folkloric dancers
- 10 a.m. May 23: Parade from the Portuguese Hall to St. Agnes Church
- Noon May 23: Parade departs St. Agnes and returns to the main hall for the Queen's Luncheon
- 6:30 p.m. May 23: Queen's Ball with presentation of past festa presidents and past festa queens and 2010 royal court; attire is semiformal
- Information: upses.com/festa.html
U-T Multimedia: For more photos, see uniontrib.com/fish-fry.
Blanca Gonzalez: (619) 542-4559; firstname.lastname@example.org
Union Tribune, aqui.