DuPage center becoming driving force behind Mexican cultural programs
Fernando Ramirez is committed to promoting his Mexican heritage.
In 2013, he had no experience with scholarship pageants. But that didn't stop him from forming the Mexican Cultural Center DuPage that runs the Miss Mexican Heritage program in West Chicago.
Just two years later, West Chicago's Mexican Independence Day celebration was languishing, but Ramirez's fledgling group stepped up to keep the tradition alive.
Today, the annual pageant is thriving and drawing contestants from around the area.
The September festival, meanwhile, has grown into a two-day event with a parade, live music and a 13-foot piñata. It also features community art projects, including this year's attempt to set a record for the largest mosaic made of reusable cups.
"What Fernando has been able to do is amazing," said Sara Phalen, a member of the cultural center's board. "He doesn't have any small ideas. To get a 13-foot piñata and do a cup mosaic are the kinds of things that get people's attention. It helps them feel pride."
Creating that sense of pride among West Chicago residents is one reason Ramirez was motivated to start the cultural center.
The 32-year-old West Chicago resident said the Mexican community has been a part of the city for about 100 years. About 51 percent of West Chicago's population is Latino.
"I feel like we have an opportunity for the Mexican community to stand up and say, 'Let's do our part in West Chicago and start helping it,'" Ramirez said.
One way to help is to have positive role models.
The cultural center started the Miss Mexican Heritage program in 2013 to encourage young Mexican-American women to promote pride in their heritage, further their education and prepare to become community leaders.
"A lot of people hear that it's a pageant and think it's about girls parading on stage," Phalen said. "But it's a development scholarship program. And it's amazing to hear the girls talk about how much the program has impacted them and given them confidence to go into the world and be successful."
Initially, however, Ramirez admits he knew nothing about pageants. He reached out to other groups for advice.
He also sought help from the city and local school districts. That support helped spread the word about the program. This year, the college-age contestants came from West Chicago, Addison, Warrenville and Oswego.
In addition to establishing the pageant as a new tradition, the center took over one of the biggest cultural celebrations in West Chicago -- the Viva Mexico Independence Day Festival.
The city had hosted the celebration for many years but canceled it in 2012 because of a lack of interest and support. The event returned the following year after volunteers decided to revive it.
However, organizing the festival requires an extraordinary amount of time and energy.
"There were other community members that really wanted to see it continue," Phalen said. "But they couldn't put together a big enough coalition to do the work."
Ramirez said the festival is important because it's an excellent way to educate people about Mexican culture. So when the center leaders decided in 2015 to present the festival -- with funding from the city -- one goal was to expand it.
The festival long has featured a parade, live music and a re-enactment of "El Grito," or the cry of independence made by revolutionary Miguel Hidalgo.
But the new organizers added a 13-foot donkey piñata to the festival's finale. The Fiberglas-and-wood creation is hoisted via a crane about 30 feet in the air and then opened, filling the street below with nearly 80 pounds of candy and treats for children to scoop up.
Community art projects also have become a part of the festival.
"Art in many ways is the universal language," Phalen said. "It brings people together. You may not know your neighbor very well. But if you go somewhere and listen to music or paint together, you have a bond and a connection."
That was the idea behind this year's mosaic, assembled on Main Street near Washington Street. Festivalgoers placed more than 11,000 reusable plastic cups using a template to create the colorful mosaic depicting a train.
In 2016, the festival was turned into a two-day event. While it draws many from West Chicago, Phalen said a number of residents from other towns attend.
Currently, Ramirez and Phalen serve on the cultural center's board along with Lizette Ramirez, Alvaro Guerrero, Omar Espinoza, Kristina Davis, Fil Guipoco, Tom Tawney, Jackie Gutierrez, Jessie Felix, Grisel Pacheco and Dominique Mendez.
Ramirez said he and other board members have ideas to improve and grow the festival. They also would like to do something outside West Chicago in the future.
"So we can really be a DuPage organization," Ramirez said. "Ultimately, it goes to our core of getting people excited about the Mexican community."