Sasha Devaroe had many reasons to celebrate Saturday. After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modesto Pride Festival, known as MoPride, was back, and she was hosting the event at Graceada Park with flair.
“I follow you on TikTok!” exclaimed one young girl before asking for a photo with Devaroe, who wore a wispy rainbow coat, a black dress and a voluminous wig.
For Devaroe and other event organizers, the return of MoPride was particularly meaningful in light of last month’s straight pride rally. The mood at Graceada Park was festive as children and families browsed the more than 60 vendors and watched musical performances and drag shows.
MoPride is a celebration of love and the LGBTQ+ community and “a protest against hate,” says the website of the Central Valley Pride Center. But minutes before noon, as the festival was about to begin, that protest itself was met with protest. Between five and 10 people assembled at a corner of the park with a loudspeaker, chanting words like “Jesus loves you.”
Central Valley Pride President and MoPride organizer Jonathan Grammatico, wearing a rainbow bandanna, walked over to the protesters and asked them to move to the sidewalk. They then began marching around the park. When the protesters stopped their march in front of the food trucks, blocking access for attendees, a security guard called the police. By the time officers arrived 40 minutes later, the protesters had left.
Grammatico said it isn’t the only problem he’s had. Earlier in the week, someone called the police to complain about the presence of drag queens at the family-friendly event. Grammatico and his team spoke with the Police Department to explain the day’s events.
“Isn’t it love thy neighbor?” quipped Devaroe, who was recounting the afternoon’s events while sitting next to her husband, Larry Soria, who sews every outfit she wears. The couple married last week and are preparing to leave for their honeymoon Tuesday. Nearby, a person towed a cart around with a handcrafted sign advertising “free hugs.”
“Straight people have the world, and we’ve had to fight,” said Devaroe. She pointed to the monkeypox outbreak, which has disproportionately affected gay men across the country, as evidence to the continued struggle that LGBTQ people face. She sees MoPride not as a political statement but as a “power statement.”
“I feel very powerful having this here,” she said. Minutes later, Devaroe was back on stage at Graceada’s Mancini Bowl, joking to the audience and dancing to a Kidz Bop cover of “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
At another corner of the park, volunteers from Golden Valley Health Centers distributed monkeypox vaccines. By 5 p.m., they had run out of their supply of 50 shots. SnapNurse offered coronavirus vaccines and boosters. Other vendors offered face painting and sold crafts.
MoPride officially began in 2014, though one attendee, who declined to share his name, said that informal events have been taking place for 16 years. At a picnic hosted by Central Valley Pride in May, Grammatico estimated that 500 people showed up. He guessed that Saturday’s event saw twice as many people.
As a licensed clinical social worker who sees patients who struggle with questions of gender and sexuality, Grammatico said events like MoPride provide important visibility. “To have kids come out here and see drag queens and see two men holding hands, walking their dog,” he said, “it’s lifesaving stuff.”