Beyond Cinco de Mayo: A Hispanic Guide to St. Louis
St. Louis resident Haniny Hillberg, 70, moved to St. Louis more than 40 years ago. A native of Bolivia, Hillberg recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for her contributions to Hispanic culture—a culture which, Hillberg says, is on the rise.
“There were very few of us back then or we weren’t as visible,” Hillberg says, recalling her early days in St. Louis.
Hillberg and her daughter, Elisa, are responsible for some of the biggest Hispanic celebrations in the metro area. Their organization, aptly named Hispanic Festival Inc., organizes the Greater St. Louis Hispanic Festival in Soulard in the fall; Fiesta in Florissant in the spring; and a celebration of Dia de Los Muertos at the Missouri History Museum in November. Each of the events attracts hundreds of vendors and thousands of attendees, many of them yearning for a taste of home.
This year, Hispanic Festival Inc., is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Hillberg says she is still is amazed with how much the festival has grown from its humble beginnings. “A lady offered me $1,000 more than 20 years ago to start a small celebration of Hispanic culture at Faust Park,” Hillberg remembers. “Look at where we are now.”
She said the growing Hispanic population yearns to reconnect with their roots and is loyal to all the local festivities. “We want to showcase our culture,” Hillberg explains. “There are many Hispanics—like my daughter—who have not lived back home. They want to reconnect with their heritage, dance and enjoy themselves, so they may never forget where they are from.”
Here to stay, and grow
Three years ago, former St. Louis County historian Danny Gonzalez partnered with the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis County Parks and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to put together a brochure highlighting the deep history of Hispanic immigration to St. Louis.
According to Gonzales’ research, there were Mexican immigrants coming to the St. Louis region as early as the 1830s, some of whom came to study at institutions such as Saint Louis University. In the 19th century, St. Louis had its largest trading relationship with Mexico, which led to many Mexican business owners beginning to establish their footprint in the region.
Many of these early Mexican immigrants continued on to cities in the East, and it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century and into the early 21st century that Mexican immigrants and other Hispanics began to arrive in the St. Louis area at an increasingly faster rate.
“As the Mexican population put down deeper roots in St. Louis, Mexican culture became much more visible,” Gonzales writes. “Clubs, musical groups, and restaurants began to be established as the Mexican community sought to share their heritage through music, dance and food.”
From there, the growth has been steady. Ness Sandoval, professor of demography at Saint Louis University, has studied different migration patterns of foreign-born communities who have come to the area. The Hispanic population in the St. Louis metropolitan region, Sandoval says, is expected to grow from the current 90,000 to 150,000 by the year 2030.
Sandoval says one way he gauges the accuracy of his own research into Hispanic population growth is to look at the number of Hispanic offerings in the region. “To check our research, we look at what’s happening in the private market,” Sandoval says. “We see a correlation between the growth of the Hispanic population, the growth of Hispanic businesses and the growth in the number of churches operating mass in Spanish. When I got here, there were only four churches that offered mass in Spanish and I think there’s over 10.”
A festival for every season
The number of events that celebrate Hispanic culture also keep growing. Cherokee Street is one of the most recognizable Hispanic landmarks in St. Louis. In 2017, the City of St. Louis officially declared it a “Hispanic Cultural District,” honorarily renaming it “Calle Cherokee.” (“Calle” means street in Spanish.)
The street is home to a myriad of taquerías, panaderías and supermercados, and it also hosts the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in St. Louis. The Saturday immediately before or after Cinco de Mayo, more than 50,000 visitors make their way to the street for a fix of authentic Mexican food, margaritas, a neighborhood parade, lucha libre and three stages with music all day long.
The Cinco de Mayo celebration, however, is not the only celebration of Hispanic culture in the street. Leticia Seitz is the founder and director of the nonprofit Latinos en Axión, which offers several health fairs, educational events and “know your rights” trainings for immigrants. Three years ago, Hispanic businesses on Cherokee Street asked Seitz to organize a Mexican Independence Day festival, or “fiestas patrias,” celebrated the Saturday before or after Sept. 16.
“It’s a truly traditional Mexican and Latino celebration,” Seitz says. Food and craft vendors line Calle Cherokee, while Mexican bandas and traditional dancers take to the stage. At the closing of the event, a representative from the Mexican Consulate in Missouri holds a Mexican flag while proclaiming the traditional “Grito de Dolores,” or independence yell, followed by the Mexican national anthem.
“For many people, this is the one chance they have to feel close to home,” Seitz says. “Some of them may never see their land, and so this festival is an opportunity to feel proud.”
Where do you start?
ALIVE magazine, in partnership with Explore St. Louis, brings you the following list highlighting the many Hispanic cultural event, activities and dance floors to check out in St. Louis.
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Adelante Awards Gala
When: Last week in April
Where: Four Seasons Hotel, 999 N. Second St., St. Louis
Cinco de Mayo on Calle Cherokee
When: Saturday, May 4, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Where: Cherokee Street, between Nebraska and Jefferson streets
Casa de Salud’s ¡Zocaloco!
When: Saturday, May 4, 6-10:30 p.m.
Where: Wool Ballroom, Busch Student Center, Saint Louis University
Valley of Flowers Festival
When: Saturday, May 4, 5:30 p.m.
Where: James E. Eagan Center, 1 James E. Eagan Drive, Florissant
Cinco de Mayo on Gravois
When: Sunday, May 5, 12-10 p.m.
Where: 4561 Gravois Ave., St. Louis
Facebook event page
Cinco de Mayo on Washington Avenue
When: Sunday, May 5, 9 a.m.-11 p.m.
Where: 1235 Washington Ave., St. Louis
Facebook event page
Fiesta in Florissant
When: Saturday, June 22, and Sunday, June 23, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Where: Knights of Columbus Park, 5127, 50 St. Francois St., Florissant
Fiestas Patrias (Mexican Independence Day Celebration)
When: Saturday, Sept. 14, 12-10 p.m.
Where: Cherokee Street between Iowa and Nebraska
Facebook event page
When: Sunday, Sept. 15, 1:15 p.m.
Where: Busch Stadium, 700 Clark Ave., St. Louis
Greater St. Louis Hispanic Festival
When: Friday, Sept. 20, Saturday, Sept. 21, and Sunday, Sept. 22, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Where: Soulard Park, Seventh Street and Lafayette Avenue, St. Louis
Dia de los Muertos
When: Friday, Nov. 1, Saturday, Nov. 2, and Sunday, Nov. 3, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis
Puerto Rican Society Gala
When: Saturday, Dec. 14, 7 p.m.-1 a.m.
Where: River City Casino, 777 River City Casino Blvd., St. Louis
Latin music and social dancing
When: Fridays, 9 p.m.-3 a.m., with dance lessons at 9 p.m.
Where: Dos Salas, 1919 Washington Ave., St. Louis
When: Thursdays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.-1:30 a.m., with dance lessons at 8:15 p.m.
Where: Club Viva, 408 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis
El Volcan Discoteque (Formerly La Onda STL)
When: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, varying hours
Where: 4920 Northrup Ave., St. Louis
Many more events and celebrations happen throughout the year—often with food and music from a specific country or region. Check out the following community organizations and let us know if we missed anything! You can also learn more from these media sources: Diario Digital, Red Latina, La Tremenda, La KeBuena and El Hispano.
Argentine Society of St. Louis
Contact information: www.argentinesociety.org, 636.789.1816, ArgentineSociety@gmail.com
Bolivian Society of St. Louis
Contact information: Facebook page, 314.456.3098, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Grupo Atlántico (Colombian Folk Dances)
Contact information: Facebook page, 314.813.0325
Hispanic Arts Council of St. Louis
Contact information: www.hispanicartscouncilstl.org, 314.863.0570, email@example.com
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Contact information: www.hccstl.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hispanic Leaders Group
Contact information: www.stlhlg.org/home, email@example.com
Puerto Rican Society of St Louis
Contact information: www.sprstlouis.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Louis Mexican Cultural Institute
Contact information: www.saintlouismexicans.com, 636.795.8854, Gloria63367@gmail.com
St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society
Contact information: www.stlouisculturalflamenco.com, 314.781.1537, email@example.com
Venezuelan Association of Missouri
Contact information: www.avmo.org, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Featured image courtesy of Fiestas Patrias.
This post is part of a collaboration with Explore St. Louis. Find more local events and attractions at explorestlouis.com. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE and Guided growing.