Fortney: Fiestaval helps kick off city's summer festival season
The empanadas are fluffy and flavourful, the pork fried to crispy perfection.
“I cook with passion,” explains Hector Menjivar as he proudly watches me taste-test the offerings from his family-run La Casa Latina stall. When I tell the native of El Salvador that I too cook with love and rarely have such fabulous results, he throws back his head and lets out a hearty laugh.
“I cook with love and passion,” he says just before doing a salsa dance demonstration with his adult daughter Cindy on Olympic Plaza. “It’s love, yes, but a little more intense.”
Thanks to Fiestaval, the annual summer event celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend, Menjivar has plenty of competition when it comes to great dance moves and charming ways.
On Friday morning, the more than 40 artisan vendors and 15 authentic Latin American food stalls are already up and running in anticipation of three days of dancing, entertainment from some of the world’s top Latin acts and, of course, unique and tasty food on the cheap.
This first post-Stampede weekend each year kicks off Calgary and area summer festival season. With events this weekend like the Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince’s Island, this one right downtown, the Calgary Turkish Festival next weekend and many more in the coming weeks, it’s no surprise that a good number of Calgarians choose weekend “staycations” rather than hit the open road.
Having taken in a glorious first Folk Fest day the evening previous, on Friday morning I head over to Olympic Plaza to see how this year’s Fiestaval is looking.
A year earlier, I was there on a soggy first day, with the rain so torrential and the winds so fierce that organizers had to cancel its opening ceremonies, in its place a valiant clean-up effort to salvage the weekend ahead.
Fast forward to 2016, on yet another Friday where the rain showers are set to come, albeit nowhere near as severe. Then there’s the promise of mostly good summer weather for the rest of the weekend.
“We get anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 people out, but much depends on the weather,” says Jennifer Rempel, one of the organizers of Fiestaval, a party that comes complete with its own beer garden. “With the weather looking good for Saturday and Sunday, we expect a great turnout.”
Why wouldn’t they? There are few festivals in this part of the world that charge no admission yet manage to attract some of the planet’s best performers in their genre, everything from meringue to reggae. Last year, Alex Cuba, the wildly popular Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter, graced the stage; this year, some of the Latin world’s top acts will appear, including N’Klabe, a 14-piece band from Puerto Rico (go to fiestaval.ca for more information).
“We do it by working hard on fundraising, being creative and putting our love into it,” says Christian Greiffenstein, Rempel’s partner in life and co-organizer of the first of two big Latin summer festivals in the city, the latter being Expo Latino, which runs from Aug. 5 to 7 on Prince’s Island.
“It’s a chance each year to celebrate our culture,” says Greiffenstein, a native of Colombia, whose festival represents the music and food of 22 different countries. “And share it with the rest of the community.”
Jorge Romberg says he would never miss the festival. “I’ve been here every year,” says the owner of Magic Tours and a Spanish language radio show host. “It gives such great exposure to businesses specializing in Latin America.”
For a young entrepreneur, it’s also an opportunity to introduce his new business to a wider community. “I’d love to have my own restaurant,” says Ellery Quintana at his family-run stall, La Fritanga (lafritanga.ca), a catering company specializing in upscale Latin street food. “This is a great way for people to try us out.”
For his mom Nelda Quintana, participating in Fiestaval has special meaning. “We want to bring our warmth to you and all Calgarians,” says the native of Nicaragua, who found refuge here back in the 1980s when her homeland was devastated by civil war. “We had such a warm welcome when we came to Canada, I love giving it back.”
A little too early Friday to hear some hip-swaying salsa or mambo, I make a plan to return on the weekend, thanks to an invitation from one passionate cook.
“Come back and see us,” says Hector Menjivar, who plans to re-open his popular La Casa Latina restaurant later this year somewhere in the city’s northeast. “You’ll have time for dessert then.”