Fourth of July parades showcase Americana in all its star-spangled, Santa Cruz County glory
Wallace Baine took in both the World’s Shortest Parade in Aptos and the Independence Day parade on Main Street in Watsonville, all before lunch time Tuesday. The classic cars, the spectators draped in star-spangled fabulousness, the surfers riding faux waves on the back of a truck, the people dressed in traditional ritual Indigenous attire, the political views on T-shirts — Santa Cruz County’s Fourth of July parades offered a portrait of the complexities of America in 2023.
“World’s Shortest Parade”? Really?
At more than half a mile long, the annual Fourth of July celebration in Aptos seems to be a perfectly acceptable length for a parade.
But maybe it means “shortest” as in, it’s so fun that it goes by too fast, like Christmas morning or a Hawaiian vacation. That makes more sense. Or perhaps it’s a shorthand way to remind you that you can see the Aptos parade and still make it to another red-white-and-blue parade on time.
On Tuesday, I took the bait, experiencing the World’s Shortest Parade in the morning, and the Independence Day parade on Main Street in Watsonville, all before lunch time. (Of those who actually participated in both parades, I counted the yellow-jacketed musicians of the Watsonville Community Band, and state Sen. John Laird, who hoofed alongside U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta in Aptos, and rode in the back of a seafoam-green Buick in Watsonville.)
There were plenty of delights, but few surprises, to the day. Fourth of July parades are supposed to deliver a wash of spectacle — old fire trucks showing off their sirens, trombones glistening in the sun, stars and stripes that go on forever.
On that scale, Aptos and Watsonville both delivered, maybe over-delivered. Mix in the occasional Elvis impersonator, Darth Vader cosplayer, dancing blueberry and giant inflatable sandwich, and you got yourself a few more reasons to love the grand ole U.S. of A.
These kinds of parades are, of course, a community’s chance to celebrate itself, and it’s the only chance you get to see up close your political leaders, law-enforcement officers, prominent businesses, and the high-school football team or cheer squad without having to endure platitudinous speeches or sales pitches. Both parades checked all the boxes when it comes to VIPs in that regard.
The crowds lining the street are naturally a big part of the spectacle. In Aptos, for at least one day, good fashion sense was suspended and folks came out in all manner of star-spangled fabulousness, the more over-the-top the better. One man I spoke to was dressed head to toe in separates — hat, shirt, pants, even sneakers — all unapologetically festooned in stars and stripes. With a laugh, he said “I only get to dress like this one day a year.”
Later, in Watsonville, I approached another man similarly dressed and tried that line out on him. “Well, no,” he said through star-spangled sunglasses, “on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and Flag Day too.”
My impression is that the Old Glory accessorizing was much more common in Aptos than in Watsonville. On Soquel Drive in Aptos, it was hard to spot someone who didn’t sport some flash of American flag regalia. In Watsonville, it was mostly cowboy hats and street clothes.
America being what it is nowadays, politics is unavoidable on the Fourth of July. And much of the performative patriotism on display in Aptos carried a tinge — sometimes quite more than a tinge — of partisan, chip-on-the-shoulder belligerence. The sentiments on T-shirts ranged from off-the-shelf right-wing grievance (“If this flag offends you …”), to the oddly doctrinaire (“Government is the Root of our Problems”) to the lib-owning (“I Identify as a Patriot”) to the mystifying (“Progress Over Perfection”). Even the drummer in the surf band performing on the back of a moving flat-bed truck was wearing a Ronald Reagan T-shirt.
Even though I saw no images of the doddering current president or the deranged previous one, the Aptos parade did include one big ominous reminder that another demoralizing election year is just ahead.
It was a campaign show of force marching in the parade on behalf of Democratic Party dissident Robert F. Kennedy Jr, including more than a dozen people carrying easily the largest American flag on display at the World’s Shortest Parade.
Some in the crowd were dubious of the RFK Jr. phenomenon and said so, to which at least one marcher mouthed the abiding cliche in these anti-vax times: “Do your research.”
Most folks, at least to my eyes, were interested in a less combative expression of patriotism, only wanting to wave the flag and convey a simple gratitude for and satisfaction with being American.
What’s more, both parades reflected the cultural eccentricity of their respective communities. In Aptos, in between the Little Leaguers and the antique tractors, there was the one-and-only Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz performing en masse the old lefty’s favorite patriotic hymn “This Land is Your Land.”
Also on hand were cool boys surfing a faux wave on the back of a truck, and even one activist militating against the proposed name change at Cabrillo College.
In Watsonville, by contrast, there were bright and colorful folklorico dancers, people dressed in traditional ritual Indigenous attire, and cars … so many cars. A group called the Watsonville Riders brought along a series of astounding vehicles, Oldsmobiles, Lincolns and Chevy Impalas, all with glorious paint jobs and many with circus-like suspension, in some cases, cruising Main Street on three wheels, with the fourth in the air.
Taken together, all this stuff — from the free candy handed out to kids to the political views on T-shirts to the display of antique vehicles of all kinds — point to an unmistakable profile of Americana which, in what is emerging as a post-fireworks celebration of the Fourth of July, scratches that itch that we all feel this time of year.