A Rancho Days Celebration at the historic Olivas Adobe in Ventura was designed to educate the community about what life was like in the 1800s while celebrating the 150th anniversary of the city of Ventura.
"This is a chance to step back in time into the rancho era at the Olivas Adobe that was so much a part of the cultural history of Ventura," said Georgeanne Lees, of Newbury Park, event organizer and community partnership supervisor for the city of Ventura. "This is an opportunity for kids and families to come out and participate, hands-on, in that lifestyle."
Sunday's event offered several hands-on activities, including panning for faux gold, crafting Mexican paper flowers and making adobe bricks from mud on site. Live entertainment featured performers including the Mariachi Aguilas de Oxnard and California State Old Time Fiddlers.
Several docents came dressed in character, including Ernie Calvillo, who portrayed Don Raymundo Olivas, who founded the Olivas Adobe in Ventura and later became one of the wealthiest men in the area.
Calvillo played the part alongside docent Joanne Abing, who portrayed Olivas' wife, Dona Teadora.
"Don Raymundo founded this place in 1841, and he died here when he was about 70 years old," said Calvillo, of Ventura. "This encompassed almost 5,000 acres, and he got it because he was retired from the Mexican army and was eligible to apply for the land grant from the Mexican government. He became very rich — and his family was the richest in the county."
The couple had 21 children, said Abing, of Ventura.
"My husband is the fourth wealthiest man in Ventura and a founder of the Republican party," Abing said in character. "Our casa is our treasure."
Sunday's event featured rancho-era workshops led by the city of Ventura's outreach staff and volunteers. Demonstrations were presented by groups including the Ventura County Hand Weavers and Spinning Guild and Channel Islands Woodcarvers.
Shelley Littleton, an interpretive specialist with the city of Ventura, manned a station where guests panned for fake gold.
"This is our set up for fourth graders when we're teaching them about the gold rush and the people that came in from all over the world," explained Littleton, of Camarillo. "We also have a mock general store to show how inflation was crazy back then — how there was so much money in gold in circulation prices went up."
Rosemary Schaeffer, exhibit and education chair for the Ventura County Hand Weavers and Spinning Guild, gave yarn spinning demonstrations.
"It's not a lost art; people are still doing this," said Schaeffer, of Port Hueneme. "I'm doing this for fun and to show people what we do. This is outreach so we can show people that it's still an active craft."
The brickmaking station, using mud from a 2-foot-hole dug into the ground, was manned by Paul Vaksvik, who presents a California history program to fourth graders through the city of Ventura.
Vaksvik explained that dirt from the same area was used to make bricks for the Olivas Adobe.
"When you get down to about 2½ feet you hit a really hard layer of clay, and the clay does not make good bricks because it crumbles," said Vaksvik, of Ventura. "They'd use this adobe top soil and when they hit the clay, they'd move over, and dig another hole. So, when you go inside the adobe and see the bricks, you'll see different shades because they came from different places on the ranch."
Deborah Burleigh, of Ventura, attended the event with her 9-year-old daughter, Tru Killion, who was among several children making mud bricks.
Burleigh said Sunday's experience was priceless.
"It's invaluable as far as I'm concerned, as far as teaching our kids how this lifestyle worked," Burleigh said. "This is just so hands on and so good for my daughter."
Mariachi opera about 1950s labor camp in Oxnard is a big hit
A one-act mariachi opera that tells the story of an Oxnard labor camp in the 1950s proved so popular at Oxnard College last month that two encore performances have been scheduled for Saturday — and one of those is already sold out.
Tickets are still available for the 8:30 p.m. staging of "El Bracero," which tells the true story of a young man from Mexico who legally travels to Oxnard to pick the fields; the 7 p.m. performance is sold out. The bracero program, which reached its height in the 1950s, allowed Mexican laborers to be admitted legally into the United States for a short period to perform seasonal — usually agricultural — labor.
The first performance on Jan. 16 in Oxnard College's 400-seat Performing Arts Center was sold out, said Irma Lopez, who serves on the board of the Oxnard College Foundation.
"We had to turn people away," Lopez said. "We were so happy to have this, and then to have it sell out like that — we had no idea. So that's why we're having an encore performance this Saturday."
The production features mariachi music, ballet folklorico and opera-style set pieces. The play, which was written by Rosalinda Verde, is performed in Spanish with English subtitles.
"The bracero program was during the period when the men were contracted in Mexico to come and work here," Lopez said. "They had to pay for housing, and they lived out in the ranches and housing in different places in Oxnard, Fillmore, Santa Paula and throughout the state."
"El Bracero" highlights the challenges workers faced, Lopez explained.
"It's a historical injustice of what happened, but it's done through music," she said. "A grandfather is the main storyteller, and he is talking to his grandson about when he came as a bracero."
One of the largest bracero camps was based in Oxnard, said Miguel Orozco of Camarillo, director and producer of the show.
"The camp is featured in the play," Orozco said. "We recognize the hard work and the contributions that the braceros made here locally. A lot of them came back to live here, and some have families here — we even have some cast members whose grandparents were braceros."
He noted that the translation of "bracero" is "one who works using his arms."
The production is a grass-roots effort, Orozco said.
"There's definitely a very local element — that's why it's connecting with the audiences," Orozco said. "This is truly a local effort with home-grown talent. Everyone is either from the area or was born here or lived here."
He said that a big draw is the music performed by Mariachi Aguilas de Oxnard, an ensemble composed of local young musicians.
"They've been around for a long time — they're a very dynamic new generation," Orozco said. "They have a very large following locally."
Mariachi music has been around for centuries, Lopez said.
"It's a particular sound that many of these men would listen to," she explained. "These men were homesick. They came as single men; they didn't bring their families with them and many of them were young and not married. The mariachi music brought back memories of the love they left behind."
The initial performance in January had a huge impact on the audience, she added.
"It's very moving, and people walked out of there with tears in their eyes," Lopez said.
Camarillo festival celebrates Mexican culture
J. Carlos Ozuna of Mariachi Águilas performs as part of the Camarillo Rebozo Festival on Sunday at the Camarillo Ranch House.