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Digging Into Heritage

Long Beach woman has drawn the anger of her landlord and the goodwill of many admirers with Chumash rituals.

December 28, 2002|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Cecilia Garcia's mother had Alzheimer's disease and her father was dying when she decided to build a small Native American-style ceremonial fire in the backyard of her Long Beach home, much as her grandparents had done in times of crisis.

Once Garcia grabbed a shovel and started digging -- purposefully, forcefully, tearfully -- that day in April 1996, she couldn't stop.

She envisioned people needing a place to sit, so she dug deep and carved benches out of the dirt walls. Later, she created a wide, flat rim for dancers, planted herbs and cactus on the edges and splashed bright blue, red and green paint on the sides.

Now 6 feet deep and 70 feet in circumference, the fire pit is a place where dozens of people gather under the full moon to dance and chant with the woman they believe is a Chumash Indian medicine woman. Her landlord, Edward Sanchez, and city officials, however, call the pit the obsession of an eccentric deadbeat.

"It's asinine, and it's costing me money," said Sanchez, 70, who believes the excavation is driving down the value of his 2,800-square-foot lot. "But she's a stubborn lady; a real fighter."

Some would call that an understatement. On Monday, Sanchez lost his third attempt in Los Angeles County Superior Court to evict the tall, thin woman who wears owlish glasses, is partial to loud colors and speaks in a blend of street jive and New Age bromides.

Garcia's response to the victory: "I'm going to dig a little deeper."

Garcia, 47, prides herself on immersing guests in monthly Chumash Indian experiences in the heart of a low-income neighborhood surrounded by modest stucco homes and factory buildings.

A six-foot chain-link fence separating her yard from a neighbor's is draped in old Indian blankets. A three-foot berm decorated with river rock and elk horns hides the pit from the sidewalk. Entertainment includes shaking rattles and singing beside a fire spiced with sage and eucalyptus leaves.

She does not charge a fee for attending her rituals, but she accepts donations.

Garcia, who got the idea from her grandfather, said she intentionally made the pit deeper than she is tall to give it the feel of being a world apart.

But the prime attraction is Garcia, who is part Chumash and was raised in East Los Angeles before drifting around the world for two decades, working on fishing trawlers and shrimp boats.

The 40 to 60 guests who huddle around her fire on the north side of town are treated to Garcia's interpretations of Indian ways, the mysteries of life and healing rituals.

They also learn the best places in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountain ranges to gather herbs, as well as how to use them in cleansing rituals.

Garcia snapped a small branch of sage in two, inhaled the aroma of its sap and said: "People change in the pit. Call it psychotherapy -- whatever. A fire is a connection to family, health, hobbies, positive attitudes. You don't have to be an Indian to feel its goodness."

In a letter of support sent to Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Thomas H. Parrott in February, Mark F. Acuna of the Gabrieleno-Tongva Tribal Council, said: "This is no barbecue, this is no backyard cookout. This is no Scouting adventure. This is religion at its most basic."

"All of our peoples have traditions of 'fire,' 'song,' and 'dance,' " he said. "These three are inseparable. Our spiritual lives depend on and are focused on the continuous antiquity of these three in their relation to the land on which we live."

More serious to Sanchez were the city health and safety officials who began snooping around his property after noticing the pit while paving an adjacent alley in the 2100 block of Lemon Avenue.

After repeated efforts to bring Garcia's yard up to code, the city's effort lost steam when she and her supporters accused officials of infringing on religious rights.

"I told them, 'Don't make me sue you,' " recalled the self-proclaimed curandera, or healer. "Back off."

Sanchez tried to have Garcia evicted when she failed to pay her rent of $450 a month in October and November. Garcia, however, argued that she was legally withholding rental payments until Sanchez made good on his promise to rid her cream-colored rental of rodents, fix damaged screens, patch gaps in the foundation and dispose of dead pigeons.

After 2 1/2 hours of testimony Monday, Parrot ordered Sanchez to complete the repairs, and ordered Garcia to pay the $1,012.50 in back rent by Thursday.

But Garcia, who gets by on donations of money, food, clothing and even vehicles, doesn't have to move.

On Friday, she said, she gave the landlord a cashier's check for the full amount.

Not that she was ever in doubt that she would find the funds.

A few days ago, standing in the muddy pit and admiring her handiwork, she said: "I'll come up with the rent money. In fact, someone just called to say they want to donate $500."

"Hey, Cecilia, how about we raise funds with a 'Keep the Fire Pit Going' fire?" suggested Garcia's friend, Long Beach artist Uran Snyder.

"Good idea," said Garcia, striding up a short flight of stairs leading out of the pit. "There's something about a fire that brings people together."

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