For all the fun that goes with Saturday’s Mexican Fiesta at South Park, there is a purpose that runs four generations deep in the local Hispanic community.
This is the 60th annual Mexican Fiesta held at South Park, and many of the organizers who have been working on it almost since its inception are just as excited to share their culture with area residents as they were when it started in 1953.
Bill Contreraz’s parents, Ruth and Ynes Contreraz, were among a handful of Hispanics who helped build Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the 1950s. The fiesta has served as a major fundraiser for the church since it began. But for Contreraz, the daylong party has another purpose — bridging the gap between cultures. Contreraz remembers when congregants at Church of the Little Flower were separated by race. The white congregants sat on the main floor of the South Side church and the members of the Hispanic community had to sit in the balcony.
“The whole reason I was involved was to break down those barriers,” Contreraz said. “I feel like we’ve come a long way at this point.”
Contreraz said too many people still see the railroad tracks as the dividing line in the community.
“For whatever the reason, the tracks were always the dividing line between the good city and the bad city,” Contreraz said. “There is a small movement of people saying, ‘Forget that.’ We are a family, a good community that is like a family.”
The new gazebo at South Park, which opened earlier this summer, will serve as a stage for performers, including musicians and Mexican dancers known as the Guadalupanos.
Angie Cormier, another longtime organizer who has been coming to the fiesta since moving to Billings in 1963, said the fiesta has been so successful over the years because it has so many facets to it. All of the food is made from scratch by members of the Hispanic community. Two local restaurants, Torres Cafe and Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant, work together with volunteers in the kitchen at Our Lady of Guadalupe, to cook the food that will be served at the public dinner starting at 11 a.m. Saturday in the church hall.
Dancers will perform traditional Mexican dances, including the Mexican Hat Dance. The classic car show was added 17 years ago and for many years, there has been a community dance. This year’s dance is Saturday night beginning at 8 p.m.
One of Cormier’s favorite parts of the Fiesta is the cascarones, which are hollowed-out eggs filled with colorful confetti.
“When you crack an egg, you crack off just a little bit of the end, then hollow them out. We save them for the whole year. Then you cut out the comics and make confetti. They sell them for like 25 cents each.”
Cormier said traditionally you crack the egg on someone you like, such as a good friend or your grandmother. The recipient often leaves the confetti on as a badge of popularity.
Esther Rivera, another longtime volunteer at the fiesta, has been hanging posters and picking up donations from local businesses for the silent auction. She was impressed with the strong show of support for this year’s fiesta.
“It takes a lot of people. We throw ourselves into this every year. It is well attended and it helps out the church,” Rivera said.
Rivera said that even though she lives in the Heights, she supports Our Lady of Guadalupe Church because of its importance to the Hispanic community and the South Side.
“I was married at Guadalupe, my children were baptized there, I buried my husband there. Guadalupe Church is a very big part of my life.”
Change is coming to the congregants, though. Guadalupe Church is now clustered with two other Billings Catholic churches, Little Flower and Holy Rosary. The three churches are now known as Mary Queen of Peace Parish and in the next three to five years, a new Catholic church will be built on South 27th Street to serve all three parishes.
Contreraz said change is hard but necessary with the shortage of Catholic priests.
“My parents helped initiate the church with the idea that here is a piece of our culture. We want to make sure it stays around since we’re so far north of the border,” Contreraz said.