Weeklong celebration of Hispanic culture takes a group effort to ensure a success
by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Without tradition, said Tevye of his little village Anatevka, “our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” Likewise, without the tradition of Topeka’s annual Fiesta Mexicana, the financial condition of one of the city’s Catholic grade schools might be just as shaky.
Begun in 1933, the fiesta is an annual weeklong celebration of Hispanic culture, featuring authentic Mexican food, a carnival, an art show, a coronation ball, and performances by traditional Mexican dancers, mariachi bands and some of the hottest acts on today’s Latino music scene.
The event typically draws somewhere around 75,000 attendees and serves as a fundraiser for Holy Family Grade School, the grade school shared by Topeka’s Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes. The grade school relies on the fiesta’s support, which typically translates into something like $250,000 a year.
More importantly, say organizers , the event helps to keep alive cultural traditions for future generations.
In fact, that is one of the main reasons that members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish have made a concerted effort to encourage younger members of the parish to get involved in the fiesta.
Twenty-four-year-old Kristina Muñoz is a case in point.
Muñoz, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business finance and management and works as a regional compliance coordinator for a crop insurance company, served as the chairperson of this year’s Fiesta Mexicana.
The experience, she said, taught her a lot. She wasn’t entirely new to the process, however. In 2002, Muñoz competed for (and won) the title of fiesta queen by rais- ing the most money of all the queen candidates that year.
“Running for queen helped me to learn, although on a much smaller scale, how to organize an event with lots of different activities,” she said.
“Then last year, I was the vice chair as well as the secretary. Toward the end, I helped a little with the publicity,” said Muñoz. “It was a big eye-opener for me.”
While serving as vice chair, Muñoz said she learned one important lesson that has helped her this year.
“It really is a group effort,” she said. “No one person can do it alone. It was a little overwhelming to me, at first, to think I was going to be in charge of this huge event.”
But she believes she’s identified three keys to success with projects of this sort.
“No matter your age,” she noted, “you [need to realize you] are capable of doing great things so long as you have great intentions; you work hard with a group of great people; and you pray on a regular basis.”
The daily prayer is important, she added, because it strengthens you for the tasks ahead. Through this whole process, Muñoz has prayed three Hail Marys and one Our Father daily, along with a simple request for the success of the fiesta.
Even though Muñoz is perhaps the most visible young adult involved in the fiesta, she is quick to point out that she is far from the only one taking on a leadership role this year.
“There has been a huge effort to get younger people involved in the fiesta and to encourage them to step forward into leadership roles,” she said. “For example, the organizer of all fiesta volunteers is Shelley Valdivia, and she is close to my age.
“In addition, the youth group has stepped forward and has done a lot for the fiesta, including providing free entertainment, decorating the parish center, helping set up the food tent, and selling food at the coronation ball. After the fiesta is all over, the youth group members will be the ones to tear down the booths.
“Overall, more and more younger people are getting involved in one way or another.”
Father John Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, agreed there has been a big push to get younger people involved and said it’s truly been a blessing to watch them in action.
“If you go into our kitchen, you’ll see three generations of families working side by side. You’ll see a set of grandparents, their grown children and their grandchildren. The grandchildren are now learning about fiesta from their parents, who learned about fiesta from their parents, and it’s a very beautiful thing to watch.”
“It’s our stewardship,” he concluded. “It’s our way of giving back to God.”