Topeka tradition celebrates 75 years

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — It saw the birth of the chocolate chip cookie, the screening of the original “King Kong,” and even the broadcast of the first episode of “The Lone Ranger.”

But in the archdiocese, 1933 might be most notable for something else entirely. It was 75 years ago this summer that parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Oakland neighborhood of Topeka, just east of the downtown area, decided to start organizing a neighborhood get-together that has grown into one of the capital’s signature events.

For lifelong Guadalupe parishioners Felipe and Mary Rangel, the result of those first get-togethers has been a tradition that has flavored the major life transitions of their lives and those of their children.

To this day, explained the couple, the Fiesta Mexicana brings even the most far-flung family and extended family back home to Topeka.

“The kids might not make it home for Christmas or Easter,” explained Mary, “but they come for fiesta.”

The fiesta started out as a simple outdoor gathering for parishioners, said Mary. Each summer, the event provided the primarily immigrant community a way to celebrate its common heritage with music, food and fun.

In the early days, parishioners simply brought their plates from home, filling them with the traditional Mexican fare when they arrived. Entertainment was as simple as listening to neighbors play and sing songs from their old homeland.

“Everybody knew everybody,” Felipe explained.

And soon dancing became a fixture of the fiesta as well.

“We’d rope off an area near the church, and for 25 or 50 cents,” he said, “you could dance. What little money we made went to the parish.”

When the fiesta started to grow, parishioners started preparing the food at home in their own kitchens.

Many would grind the corn, roll the tortillas and fry them. Others would chop all the vegetables, prepare all the meat and fry the beans.

It was a system that worked well until fiesta-goers began numbering in the thousands instead of the hundreds.

The food kitchen now sells 7,000 to 8,000 servings each of tacos, burritos, enchiladas and tostadas every night during the five nights the festival is open to the Topeka community at large,said Mary.

And attendance averages 12,000 to 15,000 people a night, which means food preparation actually begins several months in advance and is coordinated by a committee of volunteers chaired by the Rangels’ daughter, Celia Vega.

Long since officially named the Fiesta Mexicana, the celebration has seen lots of other changes over the years as well.

In the early days,said Felipe, a vendor or two was added every year. Now, between the carnival, the vendors, the musical entertainment and the traditional dancers performing each night, the weeklong festival has grown to encompass several city blocks in the neighborhood.

The caliber of the entertainment has also changed quite a bit: Some of today’s hottest Latino bands perform at the fiesta. There’s still room for local bands and dancers, however, including Ballet Folklorico and the parish’s school dancers, each demonstrating in its own way the rich heritage of their shared culture.

Father John Cordes, the parish’s pastor, said Fiesta Mexicana is unlike anything he has ever witnessed or heard of at any other parish.

“It’s a very rich celebration of culture, tradition, heritage and faith,” he said.

As the fiesta has grown, so, too, has the number of volunteers — fortunately.

This year’s fiesta saw countless volunteers spend endless hours in a variety of tasks — from preparing and serving food in the kitchen to setting up the various stages; from garnering corporate sponsorships to washing pots and pans on the closing night. The amount of money raised each year has also grown, from just a few dollars to roughly $480,000.

Despite all the changes they’ve seen over the years,say the Rangels said,several things have stayed the same. First, the fiesta is every bit as family-centered as it ever was. It’s not uncommon, said Mary, to see several generations of a family working side by side. Nor is it unusual for families to boast several members of fiesta royalty — from different generations.

For example, the Rangel family can claim at least eight fiesta queens and princesses, including daughters Rita Rangel Bennett (1974), Celia Rangel Vega (1983), and Alicia Rangel Cordova (1993), in addition to several of Mary’s nieces and great-nieces.

Those strong family ties also help explain why family members who reside outside Kansas often plan their vacations around the fiesta, returning home to help.

But there is another reason that the fiesta is so important to parishioners, even those who have long since moved out-of state to places as far away as California, Texas and beyond.

From its very inception, Fiesta Mexicana’s primary mission has been to raise money for the parish school — to provide a quality Catholic education to students now and to keep Catholic education affordable for future generations.

That’s why the parish is making a concerted effort to get the younger generation involved in the annual fundraiser.

“We need the younger generation to get involved,” said Felipe. “We need the younger ones to step up and ensure [that the] fiesta lasts.”

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