If something as unwieldy as Old Spanish Days can be said to have a heart, it’s the mercado at Our Lady of Guadalupe (227 N. Nopal St.) that this year runs Friday, August 1, through Sunday, August 3, noon-11 p.m. It’s a heart that beats a life-affirming river of food, some of the most authentic Mexican cuisine this town serves up. And by authentic, I mean homemade, family recipe-driven goodness, a kind of spirituality that radiates like chile heat. Communities can raise barns, build schools and churches, and Our Lady of Guadalupe does something similar-one tamale, one taco, one bowl of pozole at a time.
Even with Fiesta a mere few weeks away, somehow Francisco “Chico” Bautista-the chairman of all this buzz, from food to Loteria! booths-radiated a powerful calm when I talked to him a while ago in a room at the church’s complex, where 4,000 stacked eggs are in the process of becoming painted, confetti-filled cascarones. “Every year it’s the same word ‘Fiesta,’ but each Fiesta has its own special meaning,” he said. “Seeing families and friends together uniting for this time of year-it’s a meeting place. It makes me feel we’re doing something good for community.”
That togetherness can practically be tasted in the food, which has a depth generally missing even in good restaurant cuisine. “Most of our booths are being run by the same families for many, many years,” he explained. “Most of our captains bring their own families and friends to run booths and then work with newcomers from our parishioners. The flautas, for instance, are run by the Garcia family: Erica, the secretary for the parish, and her dad and mom.”
Of course, most family recipes don’t have to feed thousands; Bautista admitted they don’t even keep exact records of attendees as there are so many in-and-out visitors. Still, he said, “We use hundreds and hundreds of pounds of condiments. Just the tamales alone, they make four thousand to five thousand. We order thousands of pounds of dough and each tamale has to be smeared individually. Everything we make is from scratch here. Ladies start stoves at 4 a.m., so at 8 a.m., the chile and corn husks are ready. It’s very harmonious. They bring their stereos and start singing. It’s a time of year for them to get together. They look forward to it each year.”
Bautista himself is no stranger to the family affair atmosphere that makes Our Lady of Guadalupe so wonderful. Coming to the U.S. at age 13 from Jocotepec, Jalisco, Mexico, he was immediately immersed in the traditions of his family. He has been the chairperson for 14 years, he explained, “after they moved the church festival from October to Fiesta. It was a big Italian community back then. They even had rides in the parking lot. Since then it’s just gotten bigger and bigger.”
It’s a devoted volunteer life that Bautista, who regularly works for Cachuma Operations, lives the days of Fiesta. “I believe in the Creator,” he asserted. “That gives me the strength to carry on those three days and be able to get up in the morning and come with a happy face and do it with joy.” He’s on site from 6 a.m. until midnight, minus a mid-afternoon break to recharge and see his family. “I’m kind of the handyman for everybody,” he said. “Although I’m the chairman, they know they count on me.”
They can count on him so much he’s even diplomatic enough not to name a favorite food booth. “I tell people to try a bit of everything,” he suggested. “You don’t know how good it is until you taste it.” Alas, there are so many wonderful food options one might not have stomach enough to sample all the possibilities. But based on last year, I’d suggest not passing up the pozole and tortas. Bautista also pointed out, “People are skeptical about birria. They don’t know what it is. We make it out of beef, but use the same traditional recipe and it’s the same great taste.” Turns out that birria, usually made of goat, wouldn’t just scare away the food sensitive-it’s too hard to prepare in quantity.
Of course, while the food is fresh, the colorfully painted booths themselves are older than many Fiesta-goers. “These booths were built back when the Italian Festival used to be, 20 years ago maybe,” he said. “We know by memory how to put them together.” Even the booths are part of the tradition.
Meanwhile, the success of these three days of Fiesta has helped the church, too. Bautista lets on that masses at Our Lady of Guadalupe have been standing-room-only crowded, and that the parish hopes to expand the church building, a project that can be partially paid for by the immensely successful food market (and games and entertainment-but this is about food, after all).
For the best in Old Spanish Days Fiesta food, head to the mercado at Our Lady of Guadalupe (227 N. Nopal St.).