St. John’s Fiesta Mexicana attracts families, food-lovers

Part of Kentucky Street sounded, smelled and tasted like the other side of the border Friday and Saturday as St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church had its 22nd Annual Fiesta Mexicana.

“We had a priest years ago who suggested we do a Mexican-based fund-raiser like a fiesta or a dinner,” said Frank Lemus Jr., a co-chairman of the event committee. “It developed into this.”

From a simple fund-raiser, the event has blossomed into a community gathering in a family-filled carnival atmosphere. Because admission is free and tickets aren’t required, it’s difficult to say how many people attended, but organizers expected a crowd of 5,000. Food lines wrapped around the block.

Past fiestas have raised as much as $40,000, which is used for maintenance at the church and school and also provides scholarships to some St. John’s graduates.

Lemus said besides just raising money, the event gave the church a chance to bond as a group and connect with the community.

“I get a chance to meet people in the church that I would never have met otherwise,” he said. “We get to give something back to our church.”

Children were entertained Saturday by a row of carnival games lining the east side of the building. They exchanged long strips of yellow tickets for face paintings, temporary tattoos and pictures of themselves in Mexican clothing. For more of a challenge, children competed for prizes in games like darts, ring toss and splat, which had children try to throw a water balloon through a bulls-eye hole above their heads.

The most popular attractions were the confetti-filled eggs. Church members emptied eggs, filled them with confetti and covered the hole with tissue paper. Children threw the confetti bombs or simply smashed them over the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. By mid-evening, the street — not to mention the heads and backs of most children — was covered with small bits of paper and egg shell.

Music entertained guests both nights of the event, with Mariachi Habañero strolling through the tables early Saturday evening. Children from St. John’s School danced both evenings, and guests were encouraged to dance Friday to the Kansas City group La Mañana and Saturday to the Topeka-based Paradize Band.

Samantha Romero, 13, left, and Ashley Anguiano, 14, both of Lawrence, fan themselves as they pass out fliers for the dancing programs at the 22nd Annual St. John's Fiesta Mexicana. The two-day fiesta ended Saturday.

“It’s fun being outside and getting a taste of Mexican culture,” said Alex Graham, 12, Lawrence.

And of course, there was the food.

Women from the church made dishes using recipes they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. Mark Maxwell, Lawrence, said the main reason he had attended for several years was the authenticity and quality of the Mexican dishes. He sampled the entire menu Saturday night, he said, and his favorite were the tamales.

Loretta Chavez, one of the original organizers, said cooks prepared 2,100 of the corn and meat concoctions and sold half the batch each night. Friday’s share sold out by 7 p.m.

Cooks also whipped up 1,600 enchiladas, 1,300 burritos, 3,500 tacos, 3,000 tostadas, 100 pounds of rice and 250 pounds of beans. Preparation for the feast lasts all year, and aromas from the cooking fill the church for days before the event.

Mariachi Habañero, a Topeka-based authentic mariachi band, performs at the 22nd Annual St. John's Fiesta Mexicana. Modesto Vasquez, center, sings with Joe Martinez while playing the guitarron.