For Yuba College student Victor Moreno, building a parade float to commemorate Our Lady of Guadalupe was more than a spiritual or recreational exercise.
Moreno, 19, who helps lead a youth group from St. Isidore Catholic Church in Yuba City, takes his culture -- and its role in American life -- seriously.
"Every year it has been growing," he said of the colorful annual procession from the Richland Housing Center to St. Isidore.
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The religious festival is a smaller version of one that takes place each year in Mexico City and which is replicated in small towns throughout that country.
The Yuba City version has attracted more and more non-Hispanic spectators in recent years, Moreno said.
"This year, I saw Punjabi families -- that's kind of cool. Young generations want to explore other cultures, and to know more about the world and this melting pot of ours," he said.
On his float, Jonathan Garcia, 20, of Yuba City, played the key role of Juan Diego, a poor Aztec Indian to whom the Virgin Mary appeared four times, according to the story.
Cristina Collazo, 20, also of Yuba City, played the Virgin Mary, known in Mexico as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Historically, the procession takes place on Dec. 12. This year, the date falls on a Wednesday. St. Isidore will celebrate with its traditional 5 a.m. singing of Las Mananitas, songs sung on the morning of celebration days and birthdays.
Cruz and Maria Gonzalez of Yuba City plan to attend with their children, as they do each year.
"In Mexico, we have lots of celebrations for the saints, but this is the biggest," said Cruz Gonzalez of Sunday's procession and the festivities that continue Wednesday. "Everybody celebrates this day."
He has been in the US for 12 years, he said, and makes a point of bringing his family to the local festivities.
"It triggers your memories -- the dances and the costumes. I remember the food (in Mexico), and getting ready for church and singing the Mananitas," he said.
His daughter, Natalie, 8, announced that she would like to learn the songs.
"They never teach us," she said loud enough for her parents to hear. Cruz, 6, her younger brother, nodded in agreement. Their parents said they were pleasantly surprised by the kids' sudden interest.
Garcia joked around on Sunday about having played the barefoot Indian on the procession float.
But like Moreno, he said he takes his part in the religious celebration and in the Hispanic community seriously.
"It's something really important for us," he said. "Our friends and family respect it, and they feel proud when they see it."
Jovita Sandoval, who heads up the St. Isidore youth group responsible for the float, said she has her hands full trying to reach teens about embracing their religion and culture.
The Grupo de Jovenes, or youth group, has a food drive under way through the church -- an effort designed to encourage Hispanic youth in the area to get involved and give back to their community, Sandoval said.
"We want to show that we belong to this community," said Moreno, pointing out both the Mexican and US flags displayed on his group's float.
"This nation was built by immigrants," he said. "We respect American culture, but we don't want our kids to forget our own."
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