It’s been a week since the Minnesota State Fair opened its doors and welcomed people from all across the state, nation and even the world. While many come to the fair for the food, others prefer to enjoy the artistic shows and others cannot wait to purchase vendor souvenirs.
But behind every Latin food, imported treasure and live performance, there is a hard working Latino who works day and night to proudly show the best of their culture at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
We are on the threshold of September, known as Hispanic Heritage Month, and for the first time La Raza Radio, Minnesota’s top Latino radio station, will host an event called Pan-Latino Day at the State Fair. Pan-Latino Day is part of the 2023 new attractions and it will be held at Dan Patch Park starting at 9 a.m. Saturday.
Maya Santamaria, CEO of La Raza Radio, said she has been working with the State Fair in different capacities for about 30 years and this year they offered her a spot at Dan Patch Park.
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Santamaria said Pan-Latino Day will be interactive and she expects both Latinos and non-Latinos to come visit so they can dance, enjoy and learn more about the Mexican, Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican cultures.
“When there is information and education of a culture, there is also more understanding and acceptance of that culture,” Santamaria said. “Latinos also live in Minnesota and we are here to stay.”
Ecuadorian musician Alfonso Burga said his musical group, Ecuador Manta, feels blissful for having the chance to play traditional Andean music at the Minnesota State Fair for more than 25 years now. They focus on Ecuadorian music, but they also play music from Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and even Caribbean rhythms.
Burga feels proud of the group’s direct contribution to people wanting to learn more about Latino culture and even travel to South America.
“When we started in 1993, most people in Minnesota thought mariachi was South America. They even thought we were going to perform with the big hats. But once we started playing, we also started teaching them: ‘This is from Peru, this is from Bolivia, this is from Chile,’ and I’m really happy about the positive outcomes.”
Ecuador Manta plays a daily show at the DNR volunteer outdoor stage. And for the second year, Ecuador Manta will have a booth at the International Bazaar where they sell Ecuadorian and Peruvian items — they like to call them “Incan gifts.”
Grupo de Danzas Colombianas in MN performs Colombian folkloric dances. According to the group’s artistic director, Lina Pinto, they are more than happy to be the first dance group to represent their home country of Colombia.
“I love to dance, but to transmit the love I have for my country and my culture on a stage is amazing. To see people’s faces and witness how they are enjoying the performance makes me feel proud,” Pinto said.
The State Fair performances will be done by four groups of dancers, from kids to adults, and each of them will represent different Colombian regions. Among the dances they’ll present the typical cumbia but also more regional dances like puya and bambuco.
Colombian American Diana Viteri joined Grupo de Danzas Colombianas in 2018 and she recently became its new president. She’s been dancing for about 15 years and said her art is her way of showing that Colombia is more than the typical stereotypes.
“We are representing Colombia the best we can and we all have a passion that we want to share with both Colombians and non-Colombians who also enjoy our culture,” Viteri said.
The dance group performs Thursday at 9:30 a.m., 10:15 a.m., 11:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. as part of the Arts A’Fair spectacle. Performances will be at east Grandstand Plaza and at KSTP Heritage Plaza at West End Market.
A taste of Latin America
For the second year in a row, a South American restaurant will be representing its region at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Head to Taste of the Midtown Global Market booth at the International Bazaar and you’ll see Arepa Bar from Venezuelan Chef Soleil Ramirez.
This year Ramirez will offer three new items: a smoked beef arepa, yuca sticks and cocada drink. Ramirez said she wanted to create a menu that everyone can enjoy while educating people about South American food.
Ramirez explained how important and difficult it is to represent Venezuelan culture. She said that through her businesses Arepa Bar and Crasqui (her newly opened restaurant in St. Paul) she can show Venezuela is more than bad news. As a political refugee that cannot return, sharing Venezuelan flavors with others is the only way she feels closer to home.
Ramirez also likes to support her employees as much as she can. She acknowledges not everybody can have the privilege of emigrating to the U.S. and starting a business, so she aims to make a change in the Minnesota Latino community and to be part of her employees’ personal growth.
“Ninety percent of my employees in the two restaurants are Latinos,” she proudly said. “I want to give them a better life.”
Every year, Midtown Global Market gives two of their restaurants the opportunity to participate in the fair for six days each. This year, Arepa Bar will be available Aug. 30 to Sept. 4. If everything is more than successful, the State Fair can give the businesses the opportunity to open their own booths the following year.
Having an individual space at the State Fair is one of Ramirez’s biggest aspirations. It’s what happened to Mexican Chef Manuel “Manny” Gonzalez 13 years ago.
Manny’s Tortas, now located in the Food Building, started as one of Midtown Global Market’s picks at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair. His business sold tortas and piñas coladas served in a hollowed-out fresh pineapples. Gonzalez explains that a torta (sandwich) is a Mexican staple dish, just like tacos or enchiladas.
Among the changes Gonzalez has seen in the past decade is the ethnic diversity of the attendees. He said the State Fair started getting more diverse visitors only five years ago, after being predominantly white. However, Gonzalez also thinks a lot of Minnesotan Latinos still don’t know about the fair and highlighted the importance of spreading the word.
Head to the east side of Underwood Street between Dan Patch and Carnes avenues and you’ll find Simon and Carlo Mendez, second and third generation of a family business at the State Fair that started in 1968: El Sol Mexican Foods.
The Mendez family has seen generations of clients coming from all over the Midwest just to have a taste of their burritos. After almost six decades, Carlo Mendez said they are still using the same vendors for their produce and meat, and that they have barely made any changes to their recipes.
“The recipes that my grandparents came up with, we’re still using now and people still like it. As me and my dad say, we’re not professional chefs or anything so we must be doing something right if we’re still invited back to the fair and still have a nice following of people,” Carlo Mendez said.
Simon and Carlo Mendez don’t take on any fancy titles at their State Fair booth. They both get involved with the cooking, cleaning and, of course, management of the business. Every State Fair they work 16 hours a day and get just four or five hours of sleep each night. At almost 76, Simon Mendez says he mainly wants to get through physically. Luckily, he finds community support from other State Fair vendors.
“We’re all going through the same thing so we can relate to another vendor. There’s no in-between with this business, you either like it or you hate it,” he said.
Despite all the physical demands, Simon Mendez never stops joking and he is really looking forward to meeting old and new customers this year.
This year, by purchasing the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book, you can get one bean and beef burrito for $8.50 (the original price is $11.50.)
Bolivian treasures in the Midwest
If you are a seasoned fairgoer, you’ll probably recognize the Bolivian Imports booth in the International Bazaar’s southeast section. Bolivian businesswoman Lucy Iburg started selling goods at the State Fair in the late 1980s.
Iburg designs most of her products and says the beauty of her business is being able to meet each and every supplier. She considers Bolivian Imports to be a family business since her daughters and grandkids tend to help her out. She also highlights the importance of teaching younger generations the “value of working.”
After more than 35 years, Iburg noticed clients are wanting to travel more. People reach out to her asking about her home country. She advises people to go to the International Bazar since it is like a trip around the world right here in Minnesota.
“Take the time to talk with the business owner. It is your chance to connect with the world. It’s the most genuine thing you’ll see,” Iburg said.