By Donna Cornelius
Southern food includes everything from fried chicken and cornbread to low country cooking and Cajun cuisine. Hispanic food has the same variety, and a Birmingham festival showcases that in very tasty ways.
The 16th annual Fiesta, Alabama’s largest celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage, will be in full swing from noon to 8 p.m. Sept. 29 at Linn Park. More than 15,000 people usually attend the festival to experience not just the food, but also the art, music and dance of 20-plus countries.
This year’s theme is “Celebrando a Todo el Color,” which means “Celebrating in Full Color.” Vanessa Vargas, Fiesta president, said it’s an apt description of the event.
“Fiesta is like a mosaic,” she said. “We try to balance music and entertainment to appeal to all the countries represented.”
The food, too, comes from different countries and ranges from the traditional to the unexpected.
“Latino food is not all the same,” Vargas said.
For example, Fabio Pessoa and his team from Beraca Missions will offer Brazilian barbecue – marinated steak flavored with six spices and served on sticks, like kebabs. Beraca also will have Brazilian truffle-like sweets called brigadeiros.
“We marinate the steak the night before and grill at the event over charcoal,” Pessoa said. “Everything is fresh.”
His organization supports mission work in the Amazon jungle. Pessoa is a native of northern Brazil and grew up near the jungle. He spent eight years in Georgia before moving to Birmingham four years ago.
“This is the second year for us to participate in Fiesta,” he said.
Tacos are among the most familiar Hispanic dishes, and Gregorio Roque’s El Taco Truck will be on hand with plenty of combinations.
“We’re famous for our grilled chicken tacos,” Roque, who’s originally from Mexico City, said through a translator. “We won first place with it at the Birmingham Taco Fest.”
But adventurous eaters will find other options at Fiesta, including tacos made with beef tongue, beef cheek and lamb. Nopales – the edible pads of the prickly pear cactus – can be combined with chorizo, steak or egg.
El Taco Truck has corn tortillas, served with cilantro and onions, and flour tortillas, served with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and cheese.
Making Their Way to Birmingham
Roque came to Birmingham in 1996. He owned a restaurant in Pelham but closed it when the city bought the property it was on. The taco truck, which he’s operated for several years, is based in Pelham and serves food at corporate and special events.
“This is done with a lot of love,” he said. “I just love the work.”
Vargas, who’s 28, was born in Colombia and came with her parents to the United States when she was 5 years old. She said she was 12 when she began attending Fiesta with her parents, who own the Latino News and are longtime supporters of the festival.
“When my parents would bring me, I’d play soccer,” she said. “As I grew, the purpose and vision changed for me. I became part of the board.”
Vargas said Fiesta is “a gateway for us to learn about other countries.”
“I am all about diversity,” she said. “I love the fact that we can all unite through sports, food and music. People return year after year to catch up with each other. It’s like a reunion.”
Roque said he likes to see Americans who attend the festival visit different food vendors. While El Taco Truck doesn’t serve street corn, he said Fiesta first-timers are always curious about the corn-on-a-stick that’s dipped in butter and mayonnaise and then coated in cheese and chili powder.
Vargas said Fiesta is a great opportunity to try unfamiliar food.
“People from the Anglo community often buy dishes, share them, see what they like, and then go back to buy more,” she said.
Other food vendors in addition to El Taco Truck and Beraca Missions include Taqueria Las Garzas, El Mercado, Taqueria Mexico, Caribbean Style Pina Colada, Cuban Latin Grill, Paleteria Michoacan, Mi Pueblo Supermarket, Las Poblanas Mexican Restaurant, Happy Ice Cream, Peruvian Flavors, Snowballs Raspados and Taco Morro Loco.
In addition to authentic Latino food vendors, Fiesta has two music stages, a cultural village, a community village, children’s activities, a health and wellness village and more. Those who attend also can explore the McDonald’s Fiesta Tour, a traveling 50-plus-foot exhibit with trivia games, a photo booth, artist memorabilia, listening stations, a social media wall and product sampling.
The First Fiesta
Fiesta started in 2001, when several members of the Hispanic Business Council of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce put in motion a plan to develop a yearly Hispanic festival in downtown Birmingham.
Fiesta, Inc., was created in 2002 as a not-for-profit organization whose board of directors produces the yearly event with the help of volunteers. The mission of Fiesta is “to organize and manage a yearly festival that celebrates and educates the public on the diverse cultures within the Hispanic community in Alabama.”
The festival celebrated its 15th anniversary last year and now attracts not only Birmingham area residents, but people from across the Southeast. Over the past 15 years, Fiesta has awarded more than $70,000 in scholarships to deserving Hispanic students. Those who attend the event can donate to the scholarship fund when they buy tickets.
“Fiesta has become a beloved tradition – an opportunity for us to share our rich heritage with each other and with our fellow Alabamians,” Vargas said. “All of us in the Hispanic community embrace a deep, abiding pride for our countries and our cultures. And as we passionately share our stories and celebrate both our similarities and our differences, we continue to weave ourselves more intricately into the Birmingham community and the communities where we live.”
Tickets to Fiesta are $10 and on sale now. You can buy them online at fiestabham.com or at the gate on Sept. 29. Children ages 12 and younger get in free with a ticketed adult. For more information about the festival, visit the website or follow Fiesta on social media, @FiestaBham. The event’s official hashtag is #FiestaBham. Linn Park is at 710 20th St. N in Birmingham.