Cafe Calacas owner Rudy Cordova is producing Viva la Vida, a Day of the Dead celebration Sunday in Santa Ana. For the first time since a Dia de los Muertos event surfaced in Santa Ana 13 years ago, there will be two events paying homage to those who have passed, the latest fallout in a long-simmering feud over differing visions for the evolving downtown.
Cafe Calacas owner Rudy Cordova is producing Viva la Vida, a Day of the Dead celebration Sunday in Santa Ana.
SANTA ANA – For the first time since a Dia de los Muertos event surfaced in Santa Ana 13 years ago, there will be two events paying homage to those who have passed, the latest fallout in a long-simmering feud over differing visions for the evolving downtown.
The first Day of the Dead event took root years before conflicts between longtime Latino community members and Downtown Inc., the agency marketing the Fourth Street area that they consider agents of gentrification.
El Centro Cultural de Mexico had its first celebration in 2002, then decided to collaborate with Rudy Cordova and his family, who operated a Dia de los Muertos-themed store, in 2006 for their first Noche de Altares, or Night of Altars, event.
“It worked out great,” reflected Benjamin Vazquez, El Centro’s board chairman, with a laugh. “Awesome.”
Noche de Altares grew into the pre-eminent Dia de los Muertos in Orange County, drawing 100 altars and 40,000 people last year to Fourth Street. The committee meeting in March to plan for this year, however, didn’t go as it did in years past.
“Right off the bat, the feeling was different,” Cordova said. “There were (El Centro) members there that normally weren’t there. Everyone was a little more serious. The guy that was usually joking was quiet.”
Cordova said El Centro members proceeded to express they felt he had “taken over” Noche de Altares and asked to shadow him, since he had taken the reins on the organizational front. The following week, Cordova texted the group that it had been an honor to work with them, but to count him out.
It came down to differing ideologies about what Dia de los Muertos should be. Cordova – whose wife and brother had dropped out of the committee – was the only one with “a different vision from everybody else had” at El Centro, Vasquez said.
“I see the event as something political. It allows the community to defend ourselves from hegemonic forces,” Vasquez said. “Identifying in this group is a way to defend against gentrification as well. There’s an agenda to move this group to be united.”
By hegemonic forces and gentrification, Vasquez was referring to Downtown Inc., which in the last five years began branding downtown Santa Ana as a new hip, happening area, not the hub for immigrant Latino businesses it’s traditionally been.
Though anchored by differing viewpoints – Cordova wanted a celebration free of a political platform and focused on celebrating the lives of the dead – the split resurrects past instances in which Cordova and El Centro didn’t see eye-to-eye.
Downtown Inc. in 2011 evicted El Centro from its Fifth Street location, but for several years also offered between $5,000 and $10,000 in business license fees it collected toward Noche de Altares, according to Downtown Inc. President Ryan Chase, 32.
One year, Cordova – neutral in the political war between El Centro and Downtown Inc. – accepted the money. Soon after, Cordova received a letter from El Centro stating he would no longer be allowed a hand in financial matters surrounding Noche de Altares.
This year, Cordova approached Downtown Inc. for funding, but the agency turned him down because his first annual “Viva la Vida” event on Sunday is taking place away from downtown at the Santa Ana Train Station and to try to avoid upsetting either Dia de los Muertos organizer.
Cordova isn’t concerned about the costs he faces putting on his event – he said the event will pay for itself – but reiterated he does not see how Downtown Inc. and the Chase family that runs it are perceived as threats to the city’s culture.
“Everyone talks about gentrification. Everyone is concerned about a four-block-by-four-block area,” Cordova said referring to East End, a part of downtown largely owned by the Chase family formerly named Fiesta Marketplace. “That is not Santa Ana. Santa Ana is still predominantly Latinos, and you make it to be what you want it to be.”
Chase, an East End managing partner, thought it was a shame that Cordova relocated away from Fourth Street.
“I would have loved to keep Rudy within the downtown, but it is what it is,” said Chase, adding, “The station area I see will become kind of a node of downtown, so I think it’s activating another area of downtown that could be better utilized.”
Some vendors have decided to follow Cordova to his new event, like Jessica Arambula, 29, who has taken on the altar coordinator role.
“I called for altar builders on social media, and we put our information out there and people reached out to us,” she said, adding she’s received 30 applications.
The 13th annual Noche de Altares, scheduled for Nov. 7, isn’t suffering from Viva la Vida’s presence. It’s received more than 100 altar applications, Vazquez said, trumping last year’s number.
Santa Ana is big enough for two Dia de los Muertos events, Cordova said.
“There are some people who have said, ‘I’ll go where you go,’ but if you’re a vendor, it’s double the opportunity,” he said. “Two places to sell, two places to perform.”
On that, Vazquez is of the same mindset.
“Rudy is like my brother, I love the guy,” he said. “We fought, we cried over the event, it’s been a struggle, but I’ve been in the pits with him.”
Contact the writer: 714-796-7762, [email protected] or on Twitter: @JessicaGKwong