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Billings fiesta planner reflects on lifetime of cultural celebrations

Posted at 11:07 PM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 10:12:08-04

Seventy-year-old Bill Contreraz’s memory is long -- long enough to remember his first few Billings fiestas when he was only five or six years old.

“Me and the other kids my age would take the nails and straighten them out for them to reuse putting together the booths,” Contreraz said.

Today, the lifelong Billings resident is busy putting the finishing touches on plans for the 67th Annual Billings Mexican Fiesta and Car Show, coming to South Park Saturday.

Contreraz has spent the last two decades as chair of the fiesta, which draws thousands to the South Side for a day of traditional Hispanic dancing, singing, games and food. But before his time as the head planner, Contreraz said the fiesta was an integral part of his life and the lives of many in Billings’ Hispanic community, offering a chance to celebrate family and honor deep cultural traditions of the past and present.

The fiesta -- often billed as Billings’ longest-running cultural event -- started as a simple fundraiser more than half a century ago. Contreraz's first-generation Mexican American parents and other members of the predominantly Hispanic Our Lady Guadalupe Catholic parish held the first celebration as a fundraiser for a new church building.

Contreraz said the fiesta wasn’t just about raising money, though -- it was also about reaching out to the wider Billings community and giving locals a chance to be a part of Mexican tradition.

“[The fiesta founders] brought the culture of a fiesta, which is a great time of celebration,” Contreraz said. “And, of course, they were celebrating the fact that now we have a parish of our own.”

The fundraiser proved to be a smash hit, and the parishioners built their church. Contreraz was there from the beginning and watched the event grow and change over the next 50-plus years. The fiesta eventually added a vintage car show that now features more than 100 vehicles each year. Celebrities have even come through on occasion -- Contreraz remembers visits from legendary Mexican American pro golfer Lee Trevino and labor rights activist Cesar Chavez.

But most vivid in his memory is the traditional Hispanic meal served each year. While the food generates the most revenue, he said the smell always reminds him of the reason for holding a fiesta.

“It smelled so good. Even if you had just eaten, those tortillas and those beans and whatever else they were cooking really brought you to that fullness of life, I guess you could call it,” Bill said. “This was life for us -- to feel that love with each other.”

Our Lady Guadalupe eventually merged with several other parishes to form Mary Queen of Peace, which still sponsors the fiesta. And, like all good stories, this one comes full circle. The parish is now in the late stages of fundraising for a new church building at the gateway to the South Side. This year’s fiesta will help them close the gap to their goal.

But Contreraz is not alone in planning the event. In fact, it's something of a family affair -- along with help from his 10 siblings through the years, Contreraz’s nephew, Dallas Contreraz, is the event’s current entertainment director. Dallas Contreraz says the fiesta wouldn’t be where it is today without his uncle's ability to listen and learn.

“There’s a lot of his leadership capabilities that I’ve known that I’ve actually implemented into my personal life and used as inspiration to develop myself,” Dallas Contreraz said in an interview.

He added that many other people contribute to the success of the fiesta, but noted that it wouldn’t be possible without his uncle's steadfast dedication.

Bill Contreraz knows the day will come for him to retire from his role as chair. He said he hopes someone will carry the torch for the next generation to continue celebrating Hispanic culture.

“I’ve been told on occasion that this is my baby,” he said. “Well, I guess I never saw it that way. I just saw it as something I needed to do. But I hope this baby is something better than what I started with, someday down the road.”

The 67th Mexican Fiesta kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday at South Park with free admission to both the fiesta and the car show. The dance begins at 8 p.m. at the Billings Convention Center and ends at midnight. Tickets to the dance are $15 per person or $150 dollars for a table of eight.