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FESM festa tradition is strong for Xavier family
Natalie Xavier is flanked by two of her daughters and two granddaughters: at left, Melissa with daughter Juliana, 11 months; and Melanie at right with daughter Grace, 3. The picture was taken in the FESM dance hall Wednesday when the family and other volunteers were making 60 pounds of sweet Portuguese bread for this weekend’s Holy Ghost festa celebration. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
The woeful lack of new blood and young members are threatening the demise of many organizations.

Some already have met that end and are now just historical footnotes. The French Camp Japanese-American Citizens League, for one.

Not so for the Festa do Espiritu Santo de Manteca, one of the two active cultural and faith-based Portuguese groups in Manteca.

Thanks to a new generation of Americans of Portuguese descent who are starting to take over the reins of the 78-year-old FESM, older members like Manuel and Natalie Xavier and their contemporaries can relax and breathe a sigh of relief, content with the knowledge and assurance that the organization they have helped build will go on to serve the next generation and, hopefully, many more generations to come.

How sure are they?

Suffice it to say, their confidence is largely due to the fact the organization’s top two officers this year are their sons-in-law – president Carlos Gaspar is married to their oldest daughter Melissa, and vice president Danny Silva is the better-half of their second daughter, Melanie.

Having the younger family members at the helm, though, does not mean those of the older generation are totally washing their hands from all responsibility. They continue to hover over the younger officers like a protective mother hen who does not wean its young ones until they are fully ready to fly on their own.

The Xaviers are not the only old guards working side by side with the young generation members at the helm. Dennis Linhares, for one, who is a contemporary of the Xaviers and a former president of the organization, is the current secretary.

The younger officers actually welcome the collaborative work with the old guards. Melissa Xavier Gaspar made that sentiment clear Wednesday as she and her sister Melanie Xavier Silva matched brains and brawn with the veteran volunteers while preparing 60 pounds of flour-worth of Portuguese sweet bread for this weekend’s festa celebration.

“We’re here as long as Mom’s here,” she said, half jokingly and half seriously.

The irony, of course, is that while she and her husband (wives of FESM presidents work side by side with their husbands, and some couples have actually served as co-presidents) are the elected officers, they still rely heavily on their parents’ expertise and experience – in this case, doing all the preparations, such as making the bread the traditional way, for the festa.

Manuel Xavier himself has set a high standard for his children to follow. He has held the office of FESM president twice in the past. He was at the helm when FESM celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding three years ago, daughter Melissa proudly pointed out.

The Xaviers and the rest of the organization’s old guards are leading by example. That was clearly evident Wednesday during the making of the Portuguese sweet bread. While the Xavier sisters were sweating it out in the FESM kitchen, their young children were playing in the next room, the dance hall, just as they did when their parents were doing the same thing when they themselves were young. But while they were playing, they were also absorbing their tradition and heritage by watching their parents’ actions such as Natalie Xavier’s habit of blessing and making the sign of the cross over each pan of kneaded dough.

That piety is largely behind the Xavier sisters’ willingness and dedication to follow their parents’ footsteps when it comes to serving the organization.

“We do it in honor of the Holy Spirit,” Melissa Gaspar said.

“I am an American first,” she quickly qualified, “but it was instilled in us to be proud of our heritage and culture, so that our traditions can continue, and the miracle that St. Isabel did to feed the poor is not forgotten.”

The parade, the float, the queens and the many visible parts of the festa are not just for show, Gaspar explained. They are all symbols of their faith – the crown-shaped sweet bread, the crowns that are placed on the heads of the queens, all bearing the form of a dove which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit – which is really the heart of the celebration, she said.

“To me personally, the Holy Spirit has been wonderful to me. I do this (volunteer work) in honor of the Holy Spirit,” Gaspar said.