July 31, 2019
St. Patrick’s Mexican Fiesta
DEFINITION: Full of energy and enthusiasm.
Early on a July Saturday morning, five generations of the community have come to the kitchen at Barbosa’s East, all lined up in bustling assembly areas – and it’s getting hot in here. They’re stirring, folding, rolling and ladling filling for enchiladas for the upcoming St. Patrick’s Mexican Fiesta, with plenty of laughter, light-hearted teasing and comradery. With the goal of 200 dozen enchiladas in just one morning, this is a true culinary machine. Except that everything they are creating is homemade, authentic and passed down from family to family.
The conversation is just as lively as the incredible cooking efficiency. Grandmothers discuss who might dance on stage this year at the Fiesta, and who might sit this year out. There’s talk of the Queen contest, and who is entering for Prince and Princess. A few teens and children who are helping are asking questions, shuffling about as supply-gatherers. And plenty of talk about the food, which is one of the stars of the event, now in its 50th year in St. Joseph. Lines form early around the sidewalks of the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church for heaping plates of tamales, enchiladas, pork chili and beans. They’ll need a lot of inventory.
The annual cooking days are loud, bright and inviting – much like the Fiesta itself. Sandra Becerra-Ortega is the 2019 St. Patrick’s Fiesta Chairperson, a return task from 2018. “We do everything as authentic as possible for the festival,” she says. “It’s important. My grandfather came to the area in the 1800s, following the railroad. Today I am working with 50-plus years of recipes.”
The food is very important to the festival, but it’s only part of the whole story. There’s a variety show and several dancing events throughout the weekend. Sequins and smiles mark the coronation event, and there is live music, children’s entertainment events and vendors spanning the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church grounds. Bits of confetti dance around the lot and adorn many visitors’ heads, after they’ve burst open from hollowed out eggs – called cascarones. These traditional celebration eggs are made by hand in a diligent, time-consuming process and sold to visitors, typically by the dozen, as part of the festivities.
The colors, music, food and conversation fill the Fiesta with vibrancy and energy – but the traditional dancing remains a highlight, drawing multiple generations to the stage. “It’s so much fun to watch,” says Becerra-Ortega. “Small children and adults well into their 80s demonstrate the dances and clothing that keep our traditions alive. I think the event succeeds across the decades because of the turnout of so many generations of people here in St. Joseph.”
St. Patrick’s Mexican Fiesta is a mix of cultures, memories, families and friends – and it’s also a testament to the history of the Parish. By 1860, St. Joseph, Missouri, had a significant Irish population, second behind only Kansas City and St. Louis. St. Patrick’s was built in 1869, and by 1874, the Parish was predominantly Irish. As the city’s numbers of Mexican families grew, so did the nearby Holy Rosary parish, thriving like its Irish Catholic neighbor. The Catholic Diocese reorganized parish boundaries in 1960, and the two churches merged at St. Patrick’s, still located in its 12th Street neighborhood. With more than 300 families today, it’s an integration of community and connections across Irish Catholic and Mexican Catholic.
Jessica Stewart is also a long-time member of St. Patrick’s church, and a volunteer and attendee of the festival. Her ties run deep. “My great grandparents Mauricio and Francis Barbosa participated in the Fiesta when it started at Holy Rosary Parish,” she says. “As a family we have been participating in the Fiesta for 50 years, when it started again at St. Patrick. We cook and serve the food, dance and sing in the variety shows, and we help set-up and tear down the festival. I’ve even been a past Fiesta queen and a past co-chair. It’s the passion of the families and the church that keep it alive.” Pauline Mejia, 78, has been part of the Fiesta for 40 years and emphasizes the importance of multi-generational families getting involved. She learned to prepare the food by watching her parents. “We learned how to keep the traditions going by watching our parents. There are many different techniques, though, and not everyone cooks the same. This is why it’s so important that young people can learn and come alongside us, too,” she says.
“Many people don’t realize how many hands it takes to prepare for the festival. It’s hours and hours of work, several volunteers and months of planning,” says Mejia. “It takes a lot of hard work and community help. There are many families who take an area of the festival and give it their own unique touch, and that makes it special.”
As she’s helping roll a tray of enchiladas, Stewart reflects on how the festival adds a unique diversity element. “There is nothing like this in St. Joseph. It showcases so much diversity. Our church and our community has more Latino parishioners from different countries today than ever before, and this is something to celebrate. And of course, the cascarones, also known as the confetti eggs!”
She explains that the Fiesta is important to continuing cultural celebrations but is also an important fundraiser for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. “The event helps with so many church operational expenses,” says Stewart. “But I want people to experience the culture, music and food. I want people to feel welcome. I want them to see our neighborhood as we see it.”
All the volunteers will tell you the St. Patrick’s Mexican Fiesta has an atmosphere like a family reunion, but across all cultures and the entire city. “We want people to know that the Fiesta is for everyone,” says Becerra-Ortega. “The neighborhood is transformed that weekend, with the streets blocked off and friends and community members just spending time together. We hope everyone who visits comes away with the experience that we are all family, and we are all connected to tradition. We hope everyone sees the smiling faces. We all have common ground.”
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