Home Wisconsin Fiesta Point brings Hispanic Heritage Month celebration to central Wisconsin

Fiesta Point brings Hispanic Heritage Month celebration to central Wisconsin

Photo supplied.

The joke in Maria Harris’s family was that she was the “white sheep.”

“I talk white, I dress white, whatever that means,” she said with a laugh in an interview with Madison365 earlier this week.

Always a people person, she worked in sales and customer consulting at Stevens Point-based educational software firm Skyward for seven years after graduating from UW-Stevens Point in 2014. Her sister coming from Arizona to stay with her and her husband at the beginning of the pandemic caused some deep and authentic conversations about ethnic identity.

Moving to Stevens Point was “quite the culture shock for her,” Harris said. “In having those conversations of feeling insecure about her skin and her dark features in a predominantly white space really allowed me to explore the shame that I felt being Latina in central Wisconsin, and the assimilation that I took on, and the code-switching. Through that journey, I really started discovering, you know, the advocacy part and the acceptance part of being authentically who I am.”

She learned how to embrace her Latina identity without necessarily changing the way she talked, dressed or anything else.

Maria Harris. Photo supplied.

“I was obsessed with this concept of figuring out who am I as a Latina, and how can I accept my full authentic Latinidad as I am not that I have to change the way I dress, the way I speak, knowing that I’m 100% blood Mexican, that should be enough for me,” she said.

Harris started connecting with other Latino people in the Stevens Point area. 

“The more that I dug into accepting who I was, and my whole Latinidad, the more I started noticing how many Hispanics were in our community,” she said.

Census data indicates that the Latino population in the area is relatively small, but growing rapidly – it’s more than doubled in just the last 20 years.

Leaning into that Latina identity led Harris to create a diversity, equity and inclusion group at Skyward. The company even supported her in getting an EDI certification, but it wasn’t quite enough.

“I was doing really well at my job, but I just didn’t feel passionate or fulfilled,” Harris said. 

Leaning into her Latina identity ultimately led to a job change – this April she became the  multicultural resource coordinator at UW-Stevens Point.

Throughout the entire process, Harris always had her younger sister in mind, too.

 “Through that journey, I started looking into, how can I bring my little sister along on this journey?” she said. That included just a quick google search for Hispanic Heritage Month events they could attend in 2021 – a search that found events in Milwaukee and Madison, but none close to home.

Harris thought Stevens Point’s growing Latino community needed a celebration of their own, and approached the nonprofit organization Create Portage County – which organizes the area’s LGBTQ pride events, Juneteenth celebration, and similar festivities. That organization suggested she organize not a single event, but a whole month’s worth.

Harris was skeptical.

“I’ve never planned anything but a birthday party,” she said. 

But with some support from Create Portage County and a number of Latino business owners, Harris was able to put on no fewer than nine events between September 15 and October 15. 

There was a Salsa Bachata with dance lessons (and about 70 people in attendance), a tequila tasting at El Mezcal (whose owner owns an agave farm in Mexico), a paint & sip event and much more.

Announcing the entire suite of events – which Harris dubbed Fiesta Point – was daunting, Harris said. After she launched a Facebook page and posted in a number of community Facebook groups on a Friday, she didn’t look at social media all weekend for fear of ugly comments. Ugly comments that never came.

“When I looked on Monday, the love, the outpouring of support in all the comments that people were saying … ‘we’re so excited, we can’t wait’ … was just so heartwarming,” she said. “It just goes to show that Stevens Point is a fantastic community. And it’s such a welcoming community. And it’s so open to diversity and cultural awareness … I feel so privileged as a person of color to be in a space that is so accepting and welcoming.”

Looking back at the first month-long Fiesta Point, Harris said she’s satisfied with how it went.

“Sometimes it feels like not enough. But every time I go through and count (the events), I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, we did that,’” Harris said.

Asked what she learned for next year, she plans to be more willing to “accept the help,” she said. “There were so many people that were excited to volunteer and be a part of it. But I felt so much weight on myself.”

Through her work at UW-Stevens Point and in creating Fiesta Point earned Harris a spot on Madison365’s list of Wisconsin’s Most Influential Latino Leaders. Planning for 2023 Fiesta Point is already underway, but there are other events, too: Fiesta Point is partnering with the university and its Latino Student Alliance to celebrate Dia de los Muertos with a community ofrenda beginning Tuesday.