Maria Elena De La Garza has crosses going back to when she was as young as 8 years old. Part of her collection is on display at the Museum of Art and History. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
By Wallace Baine, Sentinel Entertainment Editor
WATSONVILLE >> There’s something not quite right these days in the Watsonville home of Maria Elena De La Garza. It’s a bit colder, a bit darker, a bit more lonely. Good thing it’s only temporary.
Some time after the latest exhibit comes down at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz in February, De La Garza’s home will return to normal. The light, the color, the spirit will be back.
What’s missing is the roughly two dozen crosses and rosaries that the Watsonville native keeps in her home as part of her interior décor. They are, however, significantly more than decorations. They are her connections to family, to history, to life.
De La Garza’s crosses are part of a big exhibit at MAH highlighting the collections of Santa Cruz County residents. There are commercial signs, model airplanes, even Pepsi cans. And right there among all those other collections are the crosses.
Included is the small cross given to her family at the funeral of Maria Elena’s father when she was just 8 years old. Near that is the rosary that her mother, who died in 2000, kept close for decades.
“There are hours and hours and hours of prayers connected to that rosary,” De La Garza said in her Watsonville office, where she serves as executive director of the nonprofit Community Action Board. As a girl, she had internalized the quiet power of her mother’s rosary. As she saw it, the prayers murmured over that rosary “continued to protect and take care and ensure that our family was going to be OK.”
Last year, almost as a lark, she applied to have her collection of crosses included in the MAH’s “Santa Cruz Collects” show. When it was accepted and she had to actually take the holy relics off her walls and give them to the museum, it was a moment she didn’t quite expect.
“We got back home that night and I thought, ‘Oh boy, something feels different.’”
Since September, when the show was first installed, De La Garza has occasionally made the 15-mile drive up Highway 1 just to be with her crosses.
“It sounds a little crazy, but the connection for me is real. I’ll stop by and say, ‘Can I just run upstairs and sit there and say a prayer and then go on my merry way?’”
The crosses carry emotional weight not only for De La Garza but for others, too. The largest cross is the collection is made from the legs of an 18th-century piano and was given to her by family friends Frank and Olivia Mendiola. The Mendiolas made the cross as an homage to their daughter Jessica, who died of an aneurysm. Another cross was given to her by her partner Marc Sander’s brother as a symbol of the hope he holds close in his years-long struggle with addiction.
Though De La Garza is steeped in her Catholic upbringing, it was not her only spiritual influence. Her father was a Protestant, and though her mother was a devout Catholic, she shaped her faith with indigenous spiritual traditions.
What’s most moving to her are the stories that stand behind the crosses of wood, metal and plaster, like the simple, unadorned wooden cross created by her partner’s mother when she was trying to recover from a stroke.
“These are about trying to capture or hold onto a celebration or a memory or a relationship,” she said. “They represent this incredible ability to get through the darkness and still being able to stand.”
Maria Elena De La Garza
Originally from: Watsonville
Family: She lives with partner Marc Sander and their dog Niño.
Education: 12 years of Catholic School at Notre Dame in Watsonville and college at the all-women’s Scripps College in Southern California.
Occupation: Executive director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, a nonprofit devoted to eliminating poverty and creating social change. Among the programs CAB oversees are immigration employment, job placement and organizing day workers and farmworkers. Before coming to CAB, she worked at the Mexican American Community Services Agency in San Jose and Gilroy, and later for Janus drug addiction center in Santa Cruz.
The crosses: Maria Elena’s crosses are just one of many collections on display at “Santa Cruz Collects,” on the second floor Solari Gallery at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. The collections include everything from flip-flop sandals to ticket stubs to KUSP-related posters to Pepsi cans. The exhibition is open to the public through Feb. 19. For more information, go to www.santacruzmah.org.
originally published on The Santa Cruz Sentinel at: http://bit.ly/2kuvqki