What’s the most coveted accessory in the City of Sonoma? The silver-tipped cane of the city’s Alcalde, or honorary mayor.
Rather than signifying difficult mobility, like other canes do, it is evidence, instead, of robust vitality. Bestowed every year on an exemplary citizen, the cane serves as an emblem of community service and heart.
This year it will be wielded by Marcelo Defreitas, artist, event planner and bon vivant. “I just found out about the cane,” Defreitas admitted, sounding a bit sheepish. Will he bandy it about town? “Um, I don’t think so. Maybe just in the 4th of July parade?”
Defreitas is perhaps best known for his commitment to La Luz, where he has served as president of the board of directors since 2016. The extravagant “Noche de Moon” fundraisers he’s organized for the nonprofit have yielded lucrative returns, enabling the center to further its mission as a catalyst of change for the immigrant community. But he has leaned into service of other kinds, too, organizing committees to restore Larson and Maxwell Farms parks, helping the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art build its “Wall to Wall” program, working to support the conservation efforts of Lyon Ranch, and facilitating the fundraising efforts of the Sonoma Valley Fund. Defreitas, 56, loves his adopted home town.
Alcalde translates from Spanish as “mayor,” an honorific sourced from the cultural traditions of Spain’s earliest colonies. Colonial alcaldes were endowed with significant municipal authority, expected to supervise and sometimes override decisions made by the town council, enforce local laws, even levy and collect taxes. As the official and binding arbiter of all land disputes, the alcalde’s silver cane served as the official unit of measure.
As Sonoma’s 2018 Honorary Alcalde, Defreitas’ duties will be more symbolic than authoritative. Named last week from a roster of publically nominated candidates, Defreitas was chosen by Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti for his vigorous fundraising and for embodying quiet leadership, dedication to service, and selfless citizenship.
Historically, Sonoma’s alcalde has been a person who prefers anonymity over the limelight, and though Defreitas’ public persona is gregariously social, he says the quietude of a simple life is his true default setting.
“I have gone to events without a shirt, and people make fun of me because I’m not that fit. It’s OK, because it’s for a good cause,” Defreitas said, admitting he’s nervous when at the center of attention. “I have no idea who nominated me for this. I love to give praise to other people, but when people start talking about me, it’s an embarrassment. In the end, though, it is nice. It validates what I’ve been trying to do.”
In the months since the fires, that’s meant helping a whole lot of people. Through La Luz, he’s helped distribute $1.2 million to people in need. “I was there 10 to 12 hours every day,” Defreitas said.
Defreitas, who grew up in Brazil, will be Sonoma’s 43rd Alcalde. The title was first bestowed in 1972, when Councilmember Ig Vella selected Gen. Vallejo’s grandson, Richard Raoul Emparan, for the honor. In 1975, the City Council voted to make recognition of contributions made by of one of its citizens one of Sonoma’s annual traditions.
At a ceremony in March, Defreitas will be officially anointed alcalde and take possession of the ornate silver cane. “This really wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing. It was never on my radar. But I’ll do it, I have to. Service is my passion.”