Lawrence’s popular St. John’s Mexican Fiesta, slated for Saturday, to feature lots of food, fun and music

photo by: Chansi Long

Gracie Wilhelm pours salsa into a container for the St. John's Mexican Fiesta as her daughter, Heather Wilhelm, assists. The women were among several people who spent hours each day this week preparing the food for the popular fiesta, slated for Saturday at St. John Catholic School, 1234 Kentucky St.

On Monday afternoon Justin Langford found himself decorating 45 dozen eggs with his nieces and nephews. It was no coffee-cup Easter egg affair: He had eight to 10 tubs spread across his parents’ patio, a dozen eggs or more nestled in each one. The tradition of creating cascarones, or confetti eggs, is one that Langford has participated in for nearly 40 years.

The confetti eggs will be sold for $6 a dozen at the annual St John’s Mexican Fiesta, scheduled from 4 to 10 p.m Saturday at St. John Catholic School, 1234 Kentucky St.

“I’ve been involved in the fiesta since I was born, really,” Langford says. “When I was a kid my father was the chairperson who would organize everything. Lately I’ve been trying to take a little more of my father’s role, of making sure the grounds are set up OK, reserving tents, making sure we have tables and chairs.”

The fiesta requires dozens of dedicated people to cook, clean, advertise and organize. Among them is Nora Murphy, who has led the children’s games for more than 15 years. Duck pond, basketball, softball throw, ring toss and wheel of numbers are a few of the paid games at this year’s event, though some games will be free. Tickets for paid games will go for 50 cents.

“We have kept our prices the same since I moved here in 1998,” Murphy says. “We try to make it really inexpensive for families.”

Since its inception 41 years ago, the St. John’s Mexican Fiesta has gone on rain or shine annually except for one year: 2020, the year the country was in lockdown because of the COVID pandemic.

Back in 2013 St. John Catholic Church underwent a construction project that had the grounds in a shambles just days before the scheduled fiesta. If you’d have driven by, says Frank Lemus, the fiesta’s committee chair, you would have thought there was no way the site would be ready in time.

“I was scared too death it wasn’t going to happen, then people started showing up at 7 in the morning (two days before) just cleaning and picking things up,” Lemus says. “This group is so resilient and so tough. There is a group of us, the committee that runs it, but when we need help — zoom! — the parish comes together and gets things done.”

In 2019 a storm once shut the entertainment down early, but the parishioners pushed on and sold food to go. The pandemic forced the church to put the fiesta on hold in 2020, and in 2021 St. John’s held the fiesta at a reduced capacity. Dancers from Ballet Folklorico performed, but there was no music or games. This year the event will resemble years past, with games for children and a DJ, but the fiesta is still in a recovery stage, says Jacinta Langford Hoyt, the fiesta’s publicity chair.

For one, there will not be a live band, nor will the event span two days, as it had before COVID.

“Maybe one day we will do two days again, but this year we are still (recovering),” Langford Hoyt says. “It’s a lot of work. People are cooking every morning before the festival for four to five hours.”

For a week before the festival, a coterie of cooks toil over simmering liquids and hunch over cutting boards in the St. John basement, preparing the food: tamales, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, tostadas and, of course, salsa; all items sell for either $3 or $4.

“Even though the cost of food went up, we didn’t raise our food prices,” Langford Hoyt says.

Volunteers will continue cooking inside throughout the event on Saturday, while a mariachi group and dancers from Ballet Folklorico perform outside. The mariachi band is scheduled from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Afterward a DJ will play Mexican music.

Lemus says food sales will wrap up just after 9 p.m, so he suggests that people who want to eat come early, before the food runs out.

During the fiesta the 15-minute documentary “Searching for La Yarda” will play on a loop inside the church from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. People are also invited to decorate a brick for an art installation organized by the Lawrence Arts Center. The brick will be used to re-create a room from the La Yarda housing unit built here in Lawrence for Mexican railway workers in the early 20th century.

Organizers have made special efforts to acknowledge the history of La Yarda within the fiesta since 2006.

Langford Hoyt’s and Langford’s grandparents lived in La Yarda. One way they connect with their heritage is to make sure the fiesta continues.

“This is a way for us to give back to the city and show some of the culture we have,” Langford says. “In the past it was the one real big Mexican cultural event that we had in the city, and so we want to continue to put that on.”

Admission into the fiesta is free. All proceeds go to the St. John Catholic School.

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