Friday, June 26, 2009
You wouldn’t know it by driving past, but the unassuming Catholic church on Kentucky Street is a mecca for Mexican food enthusiasts.
That reverential reputation is due to the couple of tamale-making dynamos currently hard at work within the bowels of St. John’s. They process 900 lbs. of meat annually, cranking out 4,000 tacos, 2,000 burritos, and as many tamales as can be consumed. They are known as miracle workers, as tireless enchilada machines, but you can call them Bert and Loretta.
Bertha “Bert” Bermudez and Loretta Chavez, along with their hardworking team of volunteers, are gearing up for the 28th annual St. John’s Fiesta. This celebration of Mexican culture and cuisine attracts nearly 16,000 every year, and it’s in large part because of the efforts of these two ageless artisans, who have been making the sought after food for all 28 years of the fundraiser’s existence.
“We get a lot of compliments on the food because it’s authentic. We make it the way our parents made it,” says Bermudez. “You have to use the right ingredients. Real ingredients. You can’t scrimp. We use good pork, it’s all made fresh, and we don’t cut corners. That’s the secret.”
Chavez agrees with the tried-and-true approach. “I have my own recipes that I like to use and don’t like to substitute things.”
“It’s the most important job there is at the fiesta and they don’t give themselves enough credit,” says organizer Frank Lemus. “Each tamale, each enchilada, gets its own special love. Their dedication shows in the food.”
The St. John’s Fiesta began as a modest affair among parishioners in 1981, inspired by much larger and older events in Topeka and Kansas City, to raise funds for the church and its school.
“They did it in the church basement, with burritos, tacos and a little boombox that played Mexican music,” recalls Lemus. “28 years later, it’s developed into a pretty nice city function.”
Danny Tetuan, also a decades-long veteran of the fiesta—who adds to the block party atmosphere by spinning salsa and Tejano tunes as DJ Jalapeño—can sum up the experience pretty succinctly.
“If I had to put it in one word,” mulls Tetuan, “I’d say community. It’s very family oriented. Lots of friends and family come in from out of town to celebrate. It’s really, really exciting and lots of fun. It’s open and everyone there is friendly. The food’s great, of course. Before you know it, there’s a big crowd of people dancing. When I see people dancing and having a good time, that makes me feel good.”
Says Mrs. Bermudez: “I had a volunteer once tell me, ‘Bert, you’re crazy. This is just too hard. I don’t know how you guys keep doing it. Do you really make enough money that it’s worth it?’
“I always say we wish we could make a lot more, but the way we look at it, we’re doing it for the church. It’s really nice for us. It’s fellowship. We get together with all the women and catch up. We have our Mexican music going and we’re all laughing and dancing. It’s a labor of love, but we’re all having a great time, too.”
“The gathering of friends and family is the greatest part for me,” says Lemus. After a beat he confesses, “But I look forward to that food every year.