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Praying for rain: Dia de San Juan fiesta celebrates monsoon

Hundreds gathered Monday for the 16th annual El Dia de San Juan Fiesta in hopes of bringing the monsoon to the sweltering desert.

According to Catholic belief, on June 24, 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado brought the monsoon to the Americas with a prayer for rain. The day became known for the biblical John the Baptist, who began performing cleansing baptisms for sinners in the Jordan River, as all water was considered blessed on this day.

“It was very hot, very dry, and he came to the bank of the Santa Cruz River and prayed to St. John to make it rain,” Councilwoman Regina Romero said Monday. “Supposedly the following day was St. John's Day and it rained. St. John's Day is a day that we pray for water, especially in the Sonoran Desert, because water and rain is still very much an important part of life in the desert.”

Ritual bathing on El Dia de San Juan faded in Tucson in the 1940s, but the tradition was revived in 1998 with a fiesta.

“For centuries St. John has been celebrated in areas of high water need,” said Romero. “The St. John Committee wanted to revive the tradition and they’ve been putting this fiesta together so we can pray for rain. It’s becoming an important part of the West Side and of Tucson. Even though it’s really, really hot, it’s something that we still want to get together to celebrate.”

The El Dia de San Juan Committee wanted to bring the community together to pray for rain, but also to give thanks for past rains.

“They do it not only to give thanks for the rains, but to remind us how important the water is,” said Amy Santos, a committee member and aide to Romero. “That it’s not only the life blood for our community and for our growth and for our sustenance, but it’s also to give thanks to the earth and to the crops.”

This year, the celebration began with a procession from the statue of San Juan Bautista along the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. The fiesta in the Mercado San Agustin featured performances from Gertie & the T.O. Boyz, Mariachi Viva la Mujer, Mariachi de Roskruge, and Los Charros.

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Families wandered through booths of local artists and business owners. Kids enjoyed games and crafts. Nearly everyone’s fingers were sticky from free watermelon slices.

“It’s really important to the neighbors to keep this local,” said Santos. “All the vendors we have here are either small business owners, or they’re organizations that are doing charitable work. We have information tables for local resources. We have Mi Familia Vota, that comes out and gives voter registration information.”

The Dia de San Juan Fiesta brought the community together, and perhaps some hope for rain.

“Every year you swear it’s going to fail, but here we are,” said Lillian Lopez-Grant, El Dia de San Juan Committee chair. “It brings everybody together, you know. There’s a real sense of community here.”

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Molly Baker/TucsonSentinel.com

Los Charros performs traditional mariachi songs for the crowd.