aura Farber knows her kids will be telling her to “chill out” and “calm down” on Dec. 31. It’s a battle they won’t win.
“They know how I get. They’ve seen me before. I just can’t help it,” says the 53-year-old South Pasadena lawyer. “The parade is one of those wonderful institutions that gives us joy, happiness and hope — something we all need these days — and look!” She holds up her arm. “I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it!”
Farber’s infectious passion suits her well; after serving the Tournament of Roses for 26 years on various committees, she’s taken on the mantle of president for 2019. Her duties include planning and organizing the 2020 parade and football game, and providing direction and leadership as the official face and voice of the venerable organization. Farber has the distinction of being the first Latina to hold the yearlong post; she’s also the third woman to do so in the Tournament’s 130-year history.
“Laura represents the collective spirit of the Tournament, and her enthusiasm is contagious,” says Tournament CEO and Executive Director David Eads. “She has committed a year of her life to this role, traveling the world and making an impact. As the first Latina, she has reached out to lots of diverse communities to make important connections.”
Times are indeed changing, contends Farber, who wholeheartedly embraces how the Tournament is evolving to be relevant in these days of social media buzz, short attention spans and cultural divisiveness. She’s excited that women are taking on more prominent leadership roles in the organization; in fact, the fourth woman president, retired construction industry executive Amy Wainscott, will take over for the 2022 parade, with more female representation on the horizon. (The Tournament announces presidents eight years in advance.) “The face of the Tournament is changing to better reflect the community we live in,” says Farber about the increasingly diverse leadership. “It’s an exciting time for us.”
Overall, Farber sees a Tournament future where the traditions of the past are intertwined with the diversity of today — ideals well represented in “The Power of Hope,” the theme of the 2020 parade. “Interestingly, in our 130 years we have never used ‘hope’ in our theme,” she says. “That is fascinating because we have an event that celebrates the New Year, which is all about looking forward, starting off fresh, being hopeful for the future.”
The word hope has a profound personal meaning for Farber. Her parents were biochemistry students in Buenos Aires in the late 1960s when a military coup led to a period of dictatorship in Argentina. Through academic connections, the young couple — with 2-year-old Laura in tow — left everyone and everything behind and found refuge at UC Santa Barbara. “It was a difficult decision, but they didn’t feel comfortable in their own country. They came here and had to start from scratch,” she explains. “The United States represented freedom and the ability to pursue education, careers, religion and speech. My parents are proud immigrants. And they are. like me, always incredibly optimistic about the future.” Farber’s husband, Tomás Lopez, was also a youngster when his parents arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic, which was also racked with political instability. Again, the U.S. offered hope, says Farber.
Farber notes that the parade’s theme “is not just about immigrants. Hope is about dignity, respect, joy, happiness, aspiration and achievement. It never quits. It’s always there and tells you that everything is possible. It’s a way of thinking and no one can take it away from you. This is the message I share everywhere we go, and with everyone I visit.”
Hope notwithstanding, Farber is also eager to remind everyone she meets about the many facets of Tournament life: the cadre of 935 loyal volunteers who donate countless hours working year-round, not just on the New Year’s Day festivities but on other events held throughout the year; and the generous contribution of the Tournament’s Foundation which grants $200,000 annually to various programs benefiting children through seniors and which has, since its inception in 1983, invested $3 million–plus in more than 200 Pasadena-area organizations. Community programs receive grants in the categories of performing and visual arts, sports and recreation, and education; a new category is sustainable programs that invest in people. Recipients include Pasadena Educational Foundation (Summer Academic Support for Low Performing Middle School Students), PTA California Congress of Parents Teachers & Students, Blair High School (Aquatics program) and Boys & Girls Club of the Foothills (Think Digital STEM Education).
But, Farber adds, the Tournament gives more than dollars. “Our philanthropy is not exclusively supporting worthwhile causes with money,” she says. “It’s supporting with efforts and involvement and community outreach that’s grounded in the message of hope.” Recognition can provide an emotional and a potential financial boost, for bands that travel far to participate in the parade, for example. Under Farber’s leadership, the 2020 parade will feature a record number of Latin American bands, including groups from Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Several Latino authors will write an anthology about the bands and their experiences and Spanish broadcaster Univision is covering all the Tournament visits to Latin America, which, says Farber, shines a light on these bands and communities. “We don’t realize the impact we have all over the place, the world,” she says. “Most band members have never left their cities or their towns and they are going to come and perform on the biggest international stage. This is a life-changing moment for many of them.”
Farber witnessed the power of community support during a recent trip to Alajuela, Costa Rica, to meet with first-time participants Banda Municipal de Zarcero. When band members from nearby towns gather to practice every weekend, their families tag along and mingle with community members. Parents, shopkeepers and restaurateurs told Farber: “We have such energy and excitement in this town with this band representing us. We just don’t know what we are going to do when the parade ends.”
Farber’s enthusiastic response: You’ll find another project or event to keep this energy going. You must do it. You will do it.
Closer to home, Farber continues to connect with the local Latino community, whether by reading in Spanish at library storytimes (“a rewarding and wonderful experience”), being a keynote speaker at the Adelante Mujer Latina Conference held this year at PCC or supporting East L.A.’s Roybal Foundation by offering the Tournament grounds free of charge for the nonprofit’s annual fundraising gala. On Oct. 19, she’ll wave proudly as the grand marshal of Pasadena’s Latino Heritage Parade.
Beyond those endeavors, Farber is helping make inroads in connecting the Tournament with new audiences. The organization has developed a new Innovation Team comprised of folks in varying leadership roles from all walks of life. Their assignment: If money was no object, what types of things, events and activities make sense for the Tournament? What direction would you like to see the Tournament take? Ideas will be discussed, researched and submitted to various committees to see if such concepts have a place at the Tournament’s table. “We want concepts that will be disruptive, but in a good way,” Farber says. That prompts a discussion about the Funny or Die Rose Parade broadcasts with faux local newscasters Cord Hosenbeck and Tish Cattigan, a.k.a. comedians Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon. “That is a great example of thinking outside the box,” she says with a laugh.
In years past, such an idea would probably have been jettisoned by the tradition-bound organization, but now, such concepts are considered and pursued. “No one would have thought we could be so hip or cool to do something like Funny or Die,” she says. “We want to continue to surprise and reach audiences, especially those who don’t watch TV the traditional way. We are looking to engage with interactive opportunities and experiences beyond the TV box. Maybe it’s augmented reality. Maybe it’s connecting audiences directly with the floats or bands. There is so much potential moving forward for us.”
From mingling with foreign dignitaries to chatting up schoolkids in Altadena, from giving children tours of the Tournament House in Spanish to meeting with local leaders, Farber has been having the time of her life as president and Tournament booster. “Giving hope and supporting hope, that message has been extremely well received everywhere,” she says. “Everyone has their own interpretation of hope, their own experiences and they have shared their experiences with us. This year has been so moving for me. We need to know to never ever lose hope.”