How the Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta is making a difference

From a parade of flags to a daylong concert of bands, the Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta showcases the diversity of Spanish-speaking cultures.

Fiesta was created to highlight the Latino community living along the Lakeshore that makes the region a great place to live, says the Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, of St John's Episcopal Church, who co-founded the event with Reyna Masko in 2019.

This year’s weeklong celebration, held Sept. 16-24, was organized by the Tri-Cities Puentes Initiative, a nonprofit created after the first event. 

“In general, I would say it was a real success,” says Cramer. “The weather was definitely not on our side. It was a little drizzly and cold when we got started, but we had amazing volunteers who showed up to get everything set up. The weather got better throughout the day, and attendance increased. It was a really lovely day of celebrating Hispanic culture and having a good time together.”

Started as block party

One of those volunteers was Chad Leister, a North Muskegon resident who began volunteering the first year of the event. His involvement led to his employer, Best Financial Credit Union, coming on board as a sponsor.

Children hit a pinata during the 2022 Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta.

“The festival is great for the community, and it’s great for families,” says Leister, whose favorite part of the multiday Fiesta is the flag parade on the second weekend because it celebrates all the Latin American countries.

“I love Hispanic culture,” says Leister, whose ethnic background is Irish, Swedish, German and Native American. “I love dancing, and last year the band motioned me up on stage to dance. When I got on stage everyone was cheering me on. It was great.”

The annual event began as a block party and has grown to a multi-day celebration that kicks off with a concert at  Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium. Throughout the week, area restaurants highlight different Latin American countries and their traditional foods. The event ends with a flag parade from the waterfront stadium to Grand Haven Central Park, followed by a day of live music, dancing, food vendors, family activities, and a COVID-19 vaccination tent.

Ballet Folklorico Sol Azteca performs at the 2022 Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta.

“We're discovering there's so much energy and excitement about doing something to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in the Tri-Cities,” Cramer says. “It’s evolving, but the heartbeat remains Fiesta in Central Park.”

Bringing visibility to community

The idea began with a conversation between Cramer and Masko, who works part-time on the church’s staff as the coordinator of children and youth ministries. 

“We were talking about how one of the things that make us sad about the Tri-Cities area is the Hispanic community is often seen as invisible when they're very much a part of who we are, but they're not highlighted and celebrated in the way that they are in other communities along the lakeshore.”

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, of St John's Episcopal Church, who co-founded the Fiesta with Reyna Masko in 2019.

“We thought, let's just throw a party for Hispanic Heritage Month and see what happens. We had well over a thousand people who showed up to celebrate that first event. And it's really grown from there so that it's become something people look forward to. We’ve had people from other communities – Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon and all along West Michigan – increasingly finding out about it and are coming to Grand Haven to celebrate Hispanic heritage.”

Fiesta tries to make the entertainment represent the diversity of music and art and dance in the various Latin American countries. 

Cramer grew up in Grand Haven, graduating from Grand Haven High School in 2000. After attending college and seminary, he returned to the area as a priest 12 years ago. 

“When I was a kid growing up here, I often found myself making friends with some of the migrant workers or exchange students,” he says. “I noticed how out of place they often felt in our overwhelmingly white community. I knew I wanted to find ways to break down the barriers of segregation to find ways to bring people together.” 

There was a range of Latin American foods at the 2022 Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta.

“Our Tri-Cities Puentes initiative is a nonprofit that we started to build bridges of cultural understanding and celebration. And so it really does come from my experience as a kid in Grand Haven, wanting there to be a different sort of Grand Haven for my daughter, 6, who's now in Grand Haven schools.”

In addition to 100 volunteers who work the event, another 20 or so people come together throughout the year to organize the event.

“It’s really a community effort,” Cramer says. 

To join the team that puts on the Fiesta, visit www.tcpuentes.org/.

 

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.