From Fiesta to Puentes: How a Party Can Galvanize a Community
Around three and a half years ago, I was having a conversation with the Coordinator of Children and Youth Ministry at my parish, St. John’s Episcopal Church. I told her that I had this crazy idea of doing a big block party to celebrate Hispanic Heritage and that I wanted to do it right in Central Park, in the heart of Grand Haven.
We decided the idea might have legs and so contacted the City of Grand Haven to see if something like this could be done… within four months. So, when we first sat down with the City Manager and Community Affairs Manager, they were dubious that we could actually pull something like this together in such a short amount of time.
They clearly had not met Reyna and Fr. Jared with a plan before.
Reyna began using her social network like a net to bring in volunteers to organize the various parts of what was becoming the first-ever Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta. We got all kinds of people, nonprofit execs and local workers, men and women, Anglo and Latin American and other races and ethnicities and started putting together a plan. We also met with someone who had organized the Grand Rapids Hispanic Heritage Fiesta for many years and who had loads of very helpful advice.
The Fiesta grew and grew in scope as each volunteer brough other ideas for something to make it even better. When it came to City Council, though, it almost didn’t get approved. There was a hesitancy to do a Fiesta like this in Central Park, a generally more serene part of Grand Haven with a monument to fallen soldiers. There was concern about alcohol in a space like that. However, we made our case that the city would not regret this and that the event would be family-friendly, respectful, and also a load of fun. Thanks to some brave voices on City Council, the motion to approve passed and we were off to the races.
As the day of the first Fiesta drew closer, we didn’t know how many people would come. I kept having this recurring fear that no one would come. We’d have all this music, these live bands and entertainment, food booths and trucks and merchants, and there would only be like five or ten people walking through. You never know, particularly in the church or nonprofit world, what programs or ideas will take off and what ones will fail. I mean, you have a hunch sometimes, but there are few things worse than pouring your soul into something only to have no one show up.
But then they did. Throughout the day hundreds, and then well over a thousand people came through our Fiesta. We know it was over a thousand because that’s how many flyers we printed and we ran out several times over. We worried about conflict, that some of the far-right elements might come and say hateful things about immigrants, the sorts of things politicians were saying in 2019 (and that they sadly still say today). But no one did. People just came to do what we dreamed of—to celebrate Hispanic Heritage and the ways the Latin American community makes the tri-cities of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg a great place to live.
After the Fiesta wrapped our team came back together with a realization. We had put our finger on a profound need in our community, something there was energy around responding to. And so, we started work over the next year to establish the Tri-Cities Puentes Initiative (TCPI), a standalone 501c3 entity that seeks to celebrate the Hispanic Heritage and the Latin American members of our community and build bridges between the Hispanic community and the residents of the Tri-Cities area.
The COVID-19 Pandemic definitely threw a wrench in the plans of the 2020 Fiesta, but in some ways there was a gift in that. It enabled us to be very intentional about building the structure of TCPI, asking what sort of mission we found ourselves called to respond to. We had a very limited COVID-safe Fiesta in 2020 and then returned with a fuller Fiesta in 2021. But even then the plans were challenging because we had no way, as we walked through 2021, of knowing what the fall would bring.
We are now less than a month from the Fourth Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta. I’ve been amazed, as Co-Chair along with my partner in dreaming this up, Reyna Masko, at the passion people have brought to this work, not only the Fiesta planning but the larger work of TCPI as a nonprofit. We have started a leadership development training program in cooperation with Ferris State University. We have taken the very active and passionate Lakeshore Latinas under our wings.
But the heartbeat of our organization is still that dream Reyna and I had over three years ago: a block party to celebrate all things Latin American. I hope you’ll come and join us for all the events during Fiesta Week, September 16–24. We’ll kick the week off with a Selena tribute concert at Waterfront Stadium on Friday, September 16, with tickets just $5 at the door and food trucks, beer and spirits to add to the celebration. From Monday, September 19, through Saturday, September 24, area residents will be participating in a special restaurant week, highlighting dishes from various Latin American countries.
And then on Saturday, September 24, we’ll form up at 11:00am at the Social District on Washington Avenue downtown and walk in a grand parade with flags from various Latin American countries, as we make our way to Central Park and kick off this year’s block party.
There is a gift in that: fiesta, celebration, joy. With so much anger and division in the world, it’s good to come together and learn and celebrate, to laugh and sing and dance. If you’ve never come, I promise, you will not regret it. ¡Celebremos!
You can find out more about the Tri-Cities Puentes Initiative at their website http://tcpuentes.org. You can find out more about Co-Chairs, the Rev. Dr. Jared Cramer and Reyna Masko, and the faith community that dreamed up this event at http://sjegh.com.