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Festival highlighting area traditions begins

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Maria Perez helps prepare the booth for Graves Farms Friday, the opening day of the Piñata and Chile Cheese Festivals at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds on Southeast Main Street. Graves Farms has been growing chile and other produce in the area since 1936. The free festival runs from 10 a.m to 10 p.m. today. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Chaves County gives a nod to its large agricultural industry and Hispanic culture this weekend with the Piñata and Chile Cheese Festival at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds.

Some kiddos get an early ride on a carnival ride Friday afternoon during the Piñata and Chile Cheese Festivals at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The festival began Friday at noon and continues today, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The Piñatafest and the Chile Cheese Festival, one started by MainStreet Roswell and the other by the Hispano Chamber of Commerce, had been held separately for about 30 years at the downtown Chaves County Courthouse. But they are merged together at the fairgrounds this year for the first time.

“The two festivals were always very close together,” said Molly Boyles, board president of MainStreet Roswell. “Sometimes they were two weekends apart, but sometimes only one weekend apart. By combining them, we feel that it will be a good event for all our vendors.”

She said that 42 different vendors had signed up for the event, which also will have music artists and groups performing, with acts chosen by MainStreet for Friday and by the Hispano Chamber for Saturday.

Because the festival is also occurring right before the start of the Eastern New Mexico State Fair on Monday, carnival rides by Wright’s Amusement started early and will operate during the festival. They are scheduled to begin at noon today.

The festival also includes food and beverage vendors, merchandise stalls and informational booths.

One purpose of the festival, the second largest for MainStreet Roswell after the annual UFO Festival, is to recognize the importance of the area’s agricultural industry.

Chaves County has the state’s second-largest agricultural economy, according to statistics from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. In 2017, the value of farm commodities totaled $467.46 million. Dairy is one of its most important agricultural sectors, and Leprino Foods Co., a global mozzarella cheese and dairy by-product manufacturer, is the county’s largest private employer.

“Agriculture is just a huge part of what keeps us going here,” said Boyles. “Oil and gas contributes a great deal to the economy, but one of the advantages we have is, if oil and gas dips, agriculture stays pretty steady.”

On Saturday, two tours of the Leprino plant on Omaha Road will provide visitors with a rare opportunity to glimpse inside the operations that typically are closed to everyone but employees and vendors.

In previous years, the Piñatafest was a large multi-day celebration of Hispanic traditions, including music, dance, food and piñatas. There was no event last year as the Hispano Chamber of Commerce underwent organizational changes.

This year, the group is celebrating Saturday with music performances and with the breaking of piñatas starting about 3:45 p.m., according to Marcos Nava, executive director of the Hispano Chamber. Youth also will have a chance to learn how to make piñatas, he said.

The relocation and the merger of the two festivals are an “experiment,” said Boyles, with only a weekend to go before it’s known whether the public, vendors and the city staff who work the event like the festival changes.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.