Women behind feast at St. John’s Mexican Fiesta driven by spirit, tradition
The church radio will play the Mexican polka.
Traditional tamales and enchiladas need a little bit of the spice that only Ruben Ramos and the sharp sounds of a Tejano accordion can provide.
The music keeps the small band of women in the basement kitchen of Lawrence’s St. John Catholic Church moving — but no — it is not the secret to the church’s longtime summer Fiesta.
In the kitchen, the women will all take their places around stainless steel counters that were installed long before stainless steel became chic. One will operate a special commercial cooker that can handle 100 pounds of meat at a time. The machine is greatly appreciated — because there are 600 pounds of ground beef and 300 pounds of pork to season, cook and serve — but no, that’s not the secret either.
On Fiesta weekend (always the weekend after Father’s Day) men — husbands, really — will come down the church stairs to fill up coolers of tamales to take back to the crowd. Yes –the ladies admit — watching the men do the serving is fun. But, you guessed it, it’s not the secret.
Bert Bermudez should know the secret. She was part of the group 30 years ago who suggested a “mini-fiesta” as a way to raise funds for the parish, which had lost about half its members to the newly formed Corpus Christi parish. That’s what it was called the first year — Mini Fiesta — but after seeing it, the Father of the parish said it would be disingenuous to call it anything but a true Fiesta.
Bermudez says the secret to Fiesta is that it doesn’t run on a secret. Rather, a spirit.
“We know that we’re doing it for the church,” Bermudez said. “Everybody is willing to do what they are asked to do. If there is a secret, that’s probably it.”
The other five ladies in the kitchen nod their head in agreement. But there is another way to put it, Gloria Ramos says from behind the counter.
“We get the call. We come.”
Lots of people come to the Fiesta. Lines of diners snake across the church grounds at 12th and Vermont streets during the two-day event.
“The thing about the Fiesta is the food,” said Jacinta Langford Hoyt, who grew up in the St. John’s kitchen with her mother, Irene Langford. “The food is such a big part of it, but it is just so much work.”
Work that happens in the basement while bands play, dancers dance and taste buds tingle up above. That’s why the Journal-World — upon Hoyt’s nomination — has chosen the ladies of the Fiesta as the inaugural winners of the Larry Award.
“I know the Fiesta means a lot to the community,” Hoyt said. “People tell me how much they look forward to the Fiesta, and it adds a bit of diversity. But I doubt people realize how much really goes into it.”
Like how preparations for the approximately 2,000 tamales begin in February. Or how nearly 50 women take different shifts throughout the week leading up to fiesta to dice the onions, season the rice, shred the pork and everything else that has to be done to give the meal that Fiesta authenticity.
“I don’t know everything that goes on,” Hoyt said of what she saw as a young girl in the kitchen. “I’m not sure I learned a lot about cooking, but I learned a whole lot about helping out. They always made it clear that helping out should be second nature.”
Loretta Chavez is converting tomatoes into tomato sauce in her mind. When you’ve been heading up a Fiesta kitchen for 30 years, that’s what find yourself doing at times.
Chavez and Bermudez are trying to accurately answer a question about how much hot sauce they make for the fiesta.
The two know that they order 10 cases of tomatoes for the event, and Chavez says off the top of her head that there are six gallons of tomatoes per case, but they use two cases of tomatoes for the rice and a few tomatoes for … well.
“I think we make a lot of hot sauce,” Chavez says.
One of the other ladies listening to the conversation laughs.
“Yeah, I know we do,” she says.
They make lots of things. You already know about the tamales. The masa is made months ahead, and the women arrive at 5 a.m. on Fiesta day to start cooking them.
How about refried beans? You have to start washing them days in advance, which confuses the one male who is in the kitchen at the moment. He had seen his wife make refried beans, and never saw any washing. Yes, some scraping with a rubber spatula to get the beans out of the can, but never any washing. All the ladies laugh.
“We don’t use any cans,” they almost say in unison.
The burritos number about 1,500, a mixture of beef and pork varieties. Then there are tacos and tostadas, and rice and enchiladas — all made with recipes more than 100 years old that have been passed down from the Mexican descendants of Chavez and others.
A good deal of food, as the ladies would say. Also, it ends up being a good deal for the church. Hoyt — who helps keep track of finances for the Fiesta — said the event raises anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 for the church. Lately, a good deal of the money has gone to support the Spanish language program at the church’s St. John School.
That makes the ladies feel good, maybe even better than the compliments they get on the food. It’s the Spanish program that ensures the food lasts much longer than a meal.
The women say there are many Hispanic youth in Lawrence who don’t know how to speak Spanish. And, frankly put, some of the ladies can’t help but feel a little guilty about that.
“It is sad to say, but at one point in time you really weren’t allowed to say much about your culture or even the language,” said Bermudez.
So, the ladies didn’t.
“To be truthful,” said Rachel Lemus, 72, “when I had kids, it scared me, and I didn’t speak Spanish to them. “People told me it would confuse them. I wish I never would have listened to them.”
Times are different now, but at the Fiesta, many of the faces are the same. This summer’s Fiesta will be the 30th, and the six ladies who are in the kitchen on this day try to determine how many of the Fiestas they’ve cooked for. They look at each other and shrug their shoulders.
“If we’re not all at 30, we’re pretty close to it,” says Irene Langford.
“Well, except for Jacinta,” Bermudez says while looking to the young woman in the corner.
“No, no, I’m only 30,” Hoyt says.
But these days, a lot of the eyes turn toward her and others in her generation. Many of the ladies in this room are in their 60s, some in their 70s. They say they still love the experience — it is one of the few times they know they can get caught up on grandkid stories and all the other talk that flows so naturally in a kitchen. But still, 2,000 tamales times 30.
Earlier this year, the decision was made to cut the Fiesta down to just one day because of all the volunteers needed. But then spring came and they decided to go for two days once again. Hoyt admits that in the past there even have been murmurs about whether the Fiesta’s time simply has passed.
“It would be terrible if it just faded away,” Hoyt said.
The ladies, of course, agree. It would be a loss for the whole community. All the gringos who get a glimpse of true Hispanic culture and a belly full of good food would suffer. But it is the Hispanic community itself that has the most to lose, the ladies say.
“I think it is very important for the younger people to see more about their culture,” Bermudez said. “You can tell them, but sometimes they don’t listen to you. You have to show them.”
Hoyt pipes up and says she thinks the Fiesta will survive.
“Maybe it will adapt and take on new directions, but it will continue,” she says. “I think my generation will step up because I think we have to.”
But the one male in the room asks the question that surely has to be on someone’s else mind.
Can you make tamales?
“If my generation does step up and take it over,” Hoyt says, “it won’t be as good as it is now. But we’ll do the best we can.”
The Fiesta ladies wave their hands and show they are not worried about that.
“Well,” Ramos says, “after 30 years, you’ll get good.”