Fiesta shines light on Mexican heritage, traditions

2014-07-18T00:15:00Z 2014-07-18T14:46:06Z Fiesta shines light on Mexican heritage, traditionsBy JACI WEBB The Billings Gazette

Times may be changing for the congregants of the now-closed Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. But the Hispanic community that built the church across from South Park is still holding its fundraising Mexican Fiesta, a way to show their support for the new church, Mary Queen of Peace.

The daylong Mexican Fiesta in South Park on Saturday, July 26, has been a tradition for 61 years. Food, music, dancing at the Shrine Auditorium, games and a car show are all part of this year’s festivities. The event is free and runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The dance at the Shrine goes from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., and tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children.

Organizer Bill Contreraz had to look outside of Billings for a mariachi band, but it was no problem arranging dancers and food. Two of Contreraz’s younger siblings, Greg Contrarez and Angelica Johnson, are now running the dance group, Los Guadalupanos, named for their church and founded by Bill Contreraz and his siblings in the 1960s.

“Now our grandkids are dancing in it,” Contreraz said.

The dancers always perform the Mexican Hat Dance and other traditional Mexican dances. In addition, Johnson will present modern dance numbers showcasing her dance company, Elite Dance in the Heights.

Several women from the church, including two of Contreraz’s cousins, Mary Alvarez and Mary Hilario, are helping prepare the food that will be served at fiesta. Josie Torres is rounding up women to help make traditional Mexican dishes and Mexican bread.

Homemade tortillas are still the perennial favorite. Contreraz said there is no better snack for a young Mexican kid than a still-warm homemade tortilla.

“The best thing is when I would get home from school and Mom was in the kitchen making tortillas. There is no comparison with the store-bought tortillas. I would eat mine with butter and avocados,” Contreraz said.

Contreraz said his father would eat his with jalapeno peppers.

“He’d take a bite of the tortilla and a bite of the pepper,” Contreraz said.

Alvarez, who lived for years in California, returned to Montana after retirement and enjoys cooking with her cousins and other relatives. Last week, she showed her 7-year-old granddaughter, Rosie Alvarez-Holt, how to roll out the dough using a sawed-off broom stick as a rolling pin.

Alvarez saves bacon grease to use in the tortillas instead of using lard or Crisco.

“We always bless the dough and make one cross-shaped tortilla,” Alvarez said. “It’s an old Catholic tradition. My mother always used to say, ‘If you have tortillas and you have beans, you will never starve.’ ”

There continues to be a great deal of pride within the Hispanic community about their neighborhood and their church, despite the closure of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was built by parents and grandparents of the current congregants.

“If you want to insult someone, say something about the South Side,” Contreraz said. “This is where we’re from and it’s a family down here.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe will still be used for special occasions, like weddings and funerals, but the last regular Sunday service was in late June. There are about 200 families that are part of that congregation, which has merged with the Little Flower Parish and Holy Rosary, to form Mary Queen of Peace. A Hispanic priest, Father Jose Marquez, has been appointed to oversee the congregation.

“When we had our last mass at Lady of Guadalupe, it was emotional for a lot of people,” Contreraz said. “They had tears in their eyes. It’s kind of like a death in the family.”

Similar goodbyes were said at the other two churches, Contreraz said.

The 8:30 a.m. mass on Sunday is always delivered in Spanish, a tradition that Father Marquez will continue at Mary Queen of Peace.

Contreraz said Spanish was his first language, but his parents warned him not to speak it outside the home because he would be discriminated against. When he got to high school at West High, Contreraz said he was feeling cocky and thought he could skate through a Spanish class.

“The teacher wanted me to pronounce the words the way she did and the book said or take an F. Believe it or not, I took the F because I grew up pronouncing the words differently.”

Contreraz said all are welcome at the fiesta Saturday, and hopes are that people of different cultures can come learn about the Hispanic culture in Billings.

“There are those who say, ‘I’m not gong to the South Side.’ I say, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing,’ ” Contreraz said.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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