On Friday, Fiesta Mexicana kicks off in Woodburn. This annual summer weekend of festivities has been a community tradition for almost six decades, since it began in 1964 as a harvest festival showing gratitude for Woodburn’s farmworkers, many of whom were migrant workers from Mexico or Central America. Today, Woodburn has a majority-Latino/Latinx population, and remains home to a vibrant Mexican community.
People celebrating at Fiesta Mexicana this year can show up hungry and find vendors offering food from regions across Mexico. Live music and dance performances every day of the Fiesta range from local and regional groups, like Woodburn’s own high school mariachi band, to headliners from Mexico, like Banda Mach and Banda Maguey. The annual soccer tournament is off this year, while the soccer field at Woodburn’s Legion Park gets an upgrade, but spectators can cheer along at lucha libre wrestling matches. A big parade through town along First Street on Saturday morning includes a Fiesta Court made up of area high school students, a car show with vintage cars and lowriders on display, and more.
Luis Molina is a local pastor at Woodburn Foursquare Church and was the grand marshal of last year’s parade. Pastor Molina joined OPB host Jenn Chávez to talk more about Fiesta Mexicana and what’s coming up at this year’s event.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenn Chávez: Back in the ‘60s, Woodburn had a growing population of migrant workers from Mexico and Central America who worked on local farms there. Fiesta Mexicana started in 1964. How were farm workers involved in the beginning of this event?
Luis Molina: Well, knowing that the majority of the people that were coming as farmworkers were from Mexico, they would join after the harvest and do what they called a “Fiesta Time.” Of course, that always means food, music and pretty much thank[ing] everyone for a great harvest they got to celebrate that year.
Chávez: You’ve lived in Woodburn for a long time and you’ve been attending Fiesta Mexicana for years, first as a community member, and then getting involved as a member of the Chamber of Commerce. And I know one big part of the Fiesta Mexicana tradition is the parade, which is happening this year tomorrow [Saturday] at 11 a.m. Last year you were invited to be the grand marshal of the parade. Can you describe what that experience was like?
Molina: I will start first of all by saying that as a Guatemalan, being considered to be the marshal for the Fiesta Mexicana has been one of the greatest honors and privileges that this amazing community has given me the opportunity to be. Last year, thousands of people, especially after COVID, came back, and it became probably one of the greatest celebrations of the last two or three decades. I had the great opportunity to ride on a 1954 antique engine from our local fire department. Got to invite some of our children from our church, and I believe that these children will have this memory forever, because they felt like kings and queens, going through the main streets of Woodburn, waving at people and throwing candy. It just felt like a big family coming together on that Saturday last year.
Chávez: You mentioned you’ve been included in Fiesta Mexicana as a Guatemalan immigrant. Woodburn is home to people of Mexican descent, and people from Central America like you. What did that inclusion mean to you?
Molina: Well, inclusiveness, trying to do things together, is what helps a community thrive. Without forgetting our beautiful and thriving population of Russians. We have, since the 1950s, a community here that is about 2,500 to 3,000 Russians who live on the east side of Woodburn. Recently, for the last few years, they have become a huge part of community events. Just about three or four months ago, we had the opportunity to celebrate a day that we named the Taste of Woodburn. We got to get together at the plaza and all of those different cultures came together and brought not only their foods, but their customs, their harvest, especially the Russians who work a lot in the farms. They brought their huge strawberries, they brought lettuce, tomatoes, you name it. And of course, you get to taste probably the best Mexican food in the area, in the state of Oregon.
Chávez: You mentioned that last year was kind of a return for Fiesta Mexicana. How does it feel to be celebrating this year, with some of the hard things people have been going through these past few years?
Molina: Personally, I believe that it gives the opportunity for people to be refreshed. Sadly to say, some of our own community members lost loved ones to COVID. They did not have the opportunity to grieve or to have a funeral service. Some others have loved ones who were sick for months, and they could not go into the hospitals. So Fiesta Mexicana right now is a day that people have been waiting for, to come back to life and be able to celebrate, and enjoy the music, enjoy the food, but more than anything enjoy each other.
Chávez: What do you think Fiesta Mexicana says about Woodburn as a community and about community pride?
Molina: Woodburn, for many years, the last 20 years, has been known by the rest of the state … as the city that has the best deals [at] the outlet mall. And we thought that people will only come because of all the good deals that they will get at the outlet mall. Little did they know that if they drive a little bit from the freeway — it’s not even two miles and we are in downtown Woodburn — you will get a real taste of what this community is about. We have the opportunity to do things together with the Chamber of Commerce, with the city of Woodburn, local leaders, with the fire department, our police officers. It brings people together from different nationalities. We have a huge population of seniors here in Woodburn, and they’re all a part of it.
Chávez: What are some of your favorite parts of the festival that people can look forward to this weekend?
Molina: Well, in the beginning, years ago when me and my wife would take our boys to Fiesta Mexicana, we were drawn into it because of their corn on the cob. Or their plates loaded with Mexican fruits with the famous Tajín. Tajín is like a chili powder that you can add to different foods, with lime juice and salt, and that’s an experience to have.
More and more, as Fiesta Mexicana has evolved, of course this area is known because we have great soccer, and having the soccer tournaments at the field was something that I always enjoyed, I love soccer … This year we will not have the opportunity to have one of the best artificial turf soccer fields done yet, it’s going to be done next month. But next year, this is going to be an amazing attraction, because we’re going to have a one-of-a-kind soccer field with tennis courts and pickleball courts and basketball courts for the entertainment.
And also, music. I was looking at the list of different bands that are gonna be playing tonight and I’m going to be here at 9:30 listening to Los Amigos de la Sierra, which is a group that I’ve known from Hood River for a few years. So I’m all ready to take my wife there tonight!
Chávez: That’s amazing. And I hear that the local high school, Woodburn High School also has a mariachi band that usually performs, right?
Molina: Let me tell you about it: if you have the opportunity to listen to these kids, you will say: ‘these kids should go pro.’ They have amazing voices, they have amazing abilities to play instruments, and whoever is putting this thing together with youngsters is doing an amazing job, because these kids have the passion to bring their heart. Most of these kids were born and raised here in the States, but their parents and grandparents migrated from Mexico many years ago, and somehow their heart speaks the love that they have for their origins and their roots. So this mariachi from the high school has this amazing flavor that makes Woodburn a very unique community.
Chávez: One thing that sounds super fun to me is the car show. What can people expect to see there?
Molina: It just happens that the parade goes right by our church building, so we get V.I.P. passes every single Saturday of the Fiesta Mexicana to see these amazing [cars]. Some of them are antique vehicles, the other ones are the [lowriders] that make those vehicles bounce almost three, four feet off the ground. These people have created some different Mexican clubs around the state of Oregon, and even from California. And it’s kind of a moment just to show off, let me put it that way. They want to show the work that they have put [in] of hours, weeks, months and thousands and thousands of dollars to make these vehicles unique. So they want to come and say, ‘look at my toy, look at my baby, look at this car.’ And people just get like, ‘oh my goodness, how do you do that?’ So that’s something that doesn’t happen in every city. And it will be a great attraction for anyone that is thinking to come this weekend to Woodburn to say, ‘let’s see if Pastor Luis is right when he talks about the parade.’ It’s something you will always remember.
The 58th Annual Fiesta Mexicana is Friday, August 19th through Sunday, August 21st, 2022, at Woodburn’s Legion Park. Admission is free all day Friday and before 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with a $5 admission price for people 10 and older on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Find out more about Fiesta Mexicana’s 2022 schedule here.