New Year's Eve Bash takes on Hispanic flavor

The Ocanaz family sponsored the fundraiser after losing a relative to cancer.

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Partygoers dance to the muisc of Grupo Mizmo during Walla Walla Relay for Life New Year's Eve Bash at Assumption Catholic Church.

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Band members Roy Garza (left), Luis Ocanaz (center) and Martin 'Tino” Garcia (right) of Grupo Mizmo perform Friday night.

WALLA WALLA - As she has done for decades, on Friday night Lupe Cerda slowly two-stepped in a backwards circle across the dance floor of Assumption Parish Hall, while being led by her husband, Oziel, to the classic Tejano music song, "Las Nubes Que Van Pasando," which was played by a group of musicians who might also be considered classics.

"They played at my quinceaera," the 57-year-old Cerda noted.

Though she wasn't certain what name Grupo Mizmo went by back in 1969, Cerda still recognized some of the salt-and-pepper-haired Hispanic men at Friday's dance as the same musicians she has been listening to at family events since her youth.

"That's what Hispanics love, music. A lot of our family events revolve around music," Cerda added.

Though music and dancing were the main attraction at Friday's event, there was one element that set this dance apart from the numerous other wedding receptions and quinceaeras that have taken place at this and other Catholic parish halls in the Valley over the years.

For the first time that Cerda and many of the other attendees could remember, the local Mexican-American community was holding a major fundraiser that wasn't specifically tied to their community.

"Their culture is very family oriented, and to see the families get together for an event like this is great," Walla Walla Relay for Life event chair Kim Porter said.

In the past, Relay for Life family fundraisers have usually been yard sales, car washes, dinners and other similar money raising events, Porter said. She noted that larger events tended to be of the ilk of salmon feeds, wine tastings and silent auctions.

If there were fundraisers with a Mexican flare, she said they tended to be of the chili and taco feed varieties, not the full-blown Tejano band dance, complete with accordionist and dozens of two-steppin' Hispanic couples swaying in slow circles around the dance floor.

"There have been other events in the past, but they haven't been of this magnitude ... It is a great way to kick off the new year," Porter added.

It was the Ocanaz family who sponsored the event that drew more than 100 family and friends from as far away as the Tri-Cities to attend the Walla Walla Relay for Life New Year's Eve Bash.

And like most Relay for Life family teams, it was the loss of a loved one to cancer that brought the family together for a cause.

Teodora Ocanaz died in June 2010 of pancreatic cancer. She was the grandmother of Jessica Rusch.

"It was kind of a wake-up call for us to be more involved in community events because we all have been touched by it," Rusch said.

That is why Rusch got her family to form a team for this year's Relay for Life, and also why at Friday's dance, instead of a wedding or quinceaera congratulatory banner, a huge Relay for Life sign was hung in the hall.

"This is definitely different. And I guess so many people have been touched by cancer and we don't think about it 'til it hits home," Rusch said.

But cancer affects the families of all ethnic groups, Porter said. This leads to the question: Why do Mexican-Americans seem to be underrepresented in larger community fundraisers like the Relay for Life?

For Cerda, the answer is both community awareness and time. She noted that both are related.

"The Hispanic community is not really aware of the things going on in the community because they are too busy working in the fields," she said.

But they do still have their fundraisers, local Tejano music radio DJ Adan Escobar said.

He said that last November, once again in Assumption Parish Hall, the Hispanic community came together to raise money for the Meza family of Milton-Freewater, who lost their home in a fire that also took the life of 6-year-old Malani Meza.

That fundraiser was also a dance.

"You throw a dance and a barbecue and they are all here," Escobar said. "Most of the time that is how you get people to participate and get involved. You tell them you are going to have a dance."

So on Friday the Ocanaz family kicked off the new year with a traditional dance for a cause that is not so traditional for their culture.

"It is a different thing for us to do. This is the first time for us to do this," Rusch said. She added, "We have had a really good turnout, and people have been excited to come ... and we have gotten a great reaction from all the people we go to weddings with."

It is a reaction Escobar hopes will be repeated again and again.

"It only takes one. And maybe next year they will do it again," he said.

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