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December 14, 2010 > History: The Holy Ghost Festival

History: The Holy Ghost Festival

By Myrla Raymundo

Situated in the historic Alvarado area of Union City, Sociedade Divino Espirito Santo de Alvarado (SDES) has maintained its location at 30646 Watkins Street for many decades. Mr. Gil Lima, president of the Union City, Board said SDES holds the annual feast of the Holy Ghost in different locations; pictures of festival "queens" are displayed in the SDES chapel. Hazel Rodrick was the queen in l926, and Madeline Dutra Soares in l931.

The Holy Ghost Festival, called "festa" in Portuguese, is a 600-year-old Portuguese Catholic tradition, but today's California festa mixes old-world Catholicism with plenty of American flair. It is similar to the modern-day Rose Parade. The original festa sprouted from the religious custom of making a promise to the Holy Spirit - a spiritual kind of IOU. One asks for divine help, under the condition that, when the help comes, one will do something good for the community.

Every year, SDES holds the Portuguese Holy Ghost Festa at SDES of Alvarado in Union City. They celebrate with a parade and queens, lots and lots of good food, and gift booths. Almost every Portuguese-American girl dreams of being queen at her local Holy Ghost festa. The crown, the crowds, the velvet capes, and of course, the blessing of the Holy Spirit, are enough to awaken any young lady's inner princess.

Every weekend, from April to early September, festas are held across California from the coast to inland locations, mimicking the wave of the first Portuguese immigrants. Whalers from Portugal's Azores Islands, who dropped anchor along the California coast, introduced the festa tradition. Some migrated to the San Joaquin Valley establishing ranches and farms; introducing the sweet potato and the Holy Ghost festival.

The Deacon usually marches with parishioners and the queens from a church during the parade. Aside from being a pilgrimage to the Holy Ghost, the festa keeps the Portuguese community alive. In two days of cooking they convert 11,000 pounds of raw beef and dozens of onions into a feast for thousands of guests.

Villages of the past and today's urban Holy Ghost Societies eat "sopas" - a meat and onion broth served with bread. The broth is poured over the bread with a sprig of mint on top. Roast meat is served on the side.

When there is no festa, the SDES hall is rented to the community for parties, crab feeds, and Bingo nights.

In 2003, the Portuguese Heritage Publications of California published a book titled "The Holy Ghost Festas: A Historic Perspective of the Portuguese in California," which contains information for those interested in learning more about the Holy Ghost Festas.

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