WHITING — The sounds and smells of Hispanic culture filled the air at Whiting Lakefront Park on Saturday as a large crowd came by car and by foot for the inaugural Empanada Fest, the brainchild of the city’s newly formed Hispanic Heritage Organization.
Whiting Councilwoman Rebeca Uñate Michko, D-2nd, serves as chairperson for the group and said she couldn’t believe the day had finally arrived for the fest that it began planning last fall.
“I’m totally excited to bring the culture here,” Uñate Michko said.
She said she did not know of the city ever having any event to celebrate Hispanic heritage previously, and that if this year’s fest is a success, the plan is to make it an annual happening.
The timing was perfect as National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
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A full day of musical entertainment with Hispanic flavor that included dancers, an all-female mariachi band, a salsa band and free salsa lessons served to create a lively atmosphere, and food was also a major focus.
There were not only empanadas but also tacos, quesadillas, burritos, elote and even BBQ and pierogi for those with different tastes.
Ricardo Muñoz is also a member of the Whiting Hispanic Heritage Organization and said it was nice to see the smiles on people’s faces as they enjoyed the fest.
“It’s really gratifying to see it come to fruition,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz said the fest can serve as a way to preserve Hispanic traditions.
“I think just the general excitement that we’ve received throughout the planning process, especially this past week, just shows, I think, the need for the community, especially Northwest Indiana, for festivals like this,” Muñoz said.
There was something for everyone at the festival: bounce houses in the family, or “familia,” section, a beer garden, 18 craft vendors and 13 food vendors and food trucks.
Noah Watkins, of Whiting, had a fun take on the Whiting Pierogi Fest’s popular Mr. Pierogi character.
The 12-year-old dressed in a taco costume and sombrero and called himself Señor Taco.
The concept of an empanada is similar to a pierogi in that it is dough filled with an endless combination of savory or sweet fillings.
Esmeralda Velasco, of Chicago, and Bernice Calderon, of Park Ridge, came from Illinois after finding out about the fest via Facebook.
They waited in a long empanada line, and Calderon said she would have liked to have seen more vendors selling the treat.
“But it’s their first year,” Calderon said.
Kristin Swallow, of Highland, tried tacos as her son, Austin, had a tamale.
“We’ve been to the Pierogi Fest before and enjoyed it,” Swallow said. “Everybody loves tacos, so we figured we’d come out and try it. And it seems like it’s off to a good start for the first one.”
Swallow enjoyed the location on the lakefront.
“This beach looks pretty nice,” she said. “We’ll have to come back here sometime.”
Heather Van Dommelen, of Sauk Village, Illinois, was more than satisfied with her food selection.
“These are the best tacos I’ve ever had,” she said, after sampling the offerings from the Flako’s Tacos food truck.
Van Dommelen liked that the fest was held in the park rather than in downtown Whiting.
“It seems like it’s a little more open,” she said.
PHOTOS: First-ever Empanada Fest celebrates Hispanic food, culture