WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — Texans have a longstanding history of turning troubles into triumphs, dating back to March of 1836 when the defeat of the Texas Army at the Alamo became a rallying cry that propelled the state to independence weeks later.
Finding strength in the midst of struggles has become somewhat of a theme for Texans, and examples of that can be found all over, from the halls of the Capitol Building in Austin to the scenic skyline of Dallas, and even in the small town of Wichita Falls.
In fact, it was a negative comment on social media aimed at the Hispanic heritage of the current Wichita Falls Mayor that inspired the annual Taco Fest, set for its third annual festival on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Wichita Falls.
Meet the Mayor of Wichita Falls
Stephen Santellana is the mayor of Wichita Falls, a city of around 100,000 residents that lies less than 15 minutes from the Red River, which separates Texas and Oklahoma.
Mayor Santellana was first elected to the Wichita Falls City Council in May of 2015, where he served until November 2016, at which time he was elected to become the Mayor of Wichita Falls. After two successful reelection campaigns in 2018 and 2020, his third term as mayor is set to expire in November 2023, at which time he will reach his term limit, and his time as the city’s mayor will come to an end.
During his time in office, Mayor Santellana has never shied away from his Hispanic heritage; in fact, it’s been a point of pride for Mayor Santellana, and his involvement with the city’s Hispanic community has been well documented over his three terms as mayor.
In 2021, a Facebook comment directed at Mayor Santellana that was intended to insult his Hispanic roots inspired one of the most memorable moments of his seven years in office; the formation of the annual city-wide Taco Fest.
Mayor Santellana’s positive response to racist comment
On Sept. 15, 2021, Mayor Santellana shared a comment on a Facebook post directed at his Hispanic heritage. In the comment, an individual referred to Mayor Santellana as a “taco eater”.
“I asked the individual, ‘Did you call me a taco eater?’ He said ‘I sure did,’” Mayor Santellana said.
In his Facebook post, Mayor Santellana said he’d been called a lot of hurtful things in his seven years of politics, and that the comment had the intention of being hurtful and racist, but a love of tacos isn’t something that’s specific to those with a Hispanic heritage.
“I believe eating tacos is a badge of honor in Texas,” Mayor Santellana said in his original Facebook post.
So, Mayor Santellana prompted those who follow him on social media to react to the post with a raised hand. He said if 1,000 followers raised their hand on the post, he’d throw a city-wide taco party and raise money for charity.
“I didn’t think that post would gain a lot of traction,” Santellana told KFDX in 2021. “When he kind of picked at my heritage, I was like, well let’s see if I can make something positive out of this, and so far in less than 24 hours, we got a lot. I mean hundreds of people that are wanting to attend the event, to help with the event, give money.”
Mayor Santellana’s post on Facebook quickly gained traction among the citizens of Wichita Falls, and in less than 24 hours, more than 1,000 residents responded to the post, and over $1,000 had been donated to Zavala Hispanic Cultural Initiative, a local nonprofit that promotes education and culture while empowering the Hispanic community.
Less than a week later, Oct. 16, 2021, was set for the first Taco Fest in Bud Daniels Park in Downtown Wichita Falls.
In the three weeks that followed, Mayor Santellana and Zavala, with the help of several businesses and individuals from the Wichita Falls community came together and turned the idea into a reality.
First Taco Fest a massive success
When the day finally came for Taco Fest, Mayor Santellana was amazed by the turnout.
“Man I’m feeling incredible right now,” Mayor Santellana told KFDX at the event in October 2021. “I cannot believe the response that we’ve seen from the public. I got here early this morning, I was a little worried hoping people show up but by 12:30 my worries went out the door.”
Keyla Ahow with the Zavala Hispanic Cultural Initiative Board of Directors said at the event that Taco Fest was a perfect opportunity to display Hispanic heritage and allow people to learn more about the culture.
“It is amazing how the community of Wichita Falls can get together and convert something that was really bad and really wrong into such a great environment,” Ahow told KFDX. “We’re all taco eaters, we can live together, we can coexist and make a good out of a bad.”
Taco Fest now annual Wichita Falls event
The inaugural Taco Fest event was so successful that Mayor Santellana promised Taco Fest would make a return in 2022.
“Next year will be bigger and better, and we will show the world what the power of positivity can do to bring people together,” Mayor Santellana said in a Facebook post following the event.
Again sticking to his word, Mayor Santellana and Zavala hosted the second annual Taco Fest on July 23, 2022, again in Bud Daniels Park in Wichita Falls.
For the second year in a row, hundreds of citizens of Wichita Falls and the surrounding areas come out to show their support and eat their fill of tacos.
Taco Fest is now set for its third annual event less than a week before the kickoff of Hispanic Heritage Month. Mayor Santellana continues to urge residents to attend the event in the same spirit with which the event was created in 2021.
“Please join me for a third year in a row by turning a negative into a positive,” Mayor Santellana said in a Facebook post on August 9, 2023.
Taco Fest 2023 will take place at the Downtown Wichita Falls Farmers Market located at 713 Ohio Avenue. The event is on Saturday, September 9, 2023, and the festivities begin at 5 p.m. and will last until 10 p.m.