A recent weekend at Banning Park: The annual Wilmington Fiesta hits its stride in a swirl of music, dancing, carnival rides.
Amid the festivities, a solemn ritual is getting under way. The judges take their places at a table under a white canopy: six men in baseball caps, big men, men who know what they like and what they're looking for.
" Menudo eaters from way back," says John Mendez, co-chairman of the three-day fiesta, which is being held for the sixth year.
'Ours Is the Best'
The judges have been assembled to select the best menudo in Wilmington. At stake are not only a trip to Puerto Vallarta and cash prizes but culinary reputation and tradition: The secrets of what goes into menudo --a soupy concoction of tripe and spices--are family lore.
"Everybody makes it a little different," says contestant Adele Robinson. She stirs a caldron of burbling liquid, using the ladle to pull a cow's hoof to the surface. "Whether we win or not, ours is the best."
Robinson and her husband, Bob, have been at their booth since early in the morning, as were more than a dozen other contestants. The booths are festooned with colorful signs and photos of past contest winners at work. There is good-natured sparring between contestants as they chop onions and lemons, preparing for the start of the judging.
Menudo takes six hours to make properly, according to Robinson. It is a legendary early-morning cure for a hangover, or " la cruda ," says Robinson's mother, also named Adele.
"Tambien para los nervios," the elder Adele says. ("Also for the nerves.")
"My doctor swears by it for hangovers," says Cruz Felix, one of the judges, as steaming plastic bowls are placed on the table and the tasting begins.
Good for What Ails You
He folds his hands over his stomach, looking sage in tinted glasses and a beard. "It's got a lot of protein, a lot of energy, calcium. It gives you a high right away. I have some coffee with it; that gets me up, too. Then I'm ready."
The judges take deliberate sips, marking evaluation sheets that rate the menudo on appearance and taste. Felix says good menudo requires good tripe.
"The age of the animal is important. It's got to be middle-aged. Too old, too hard. Too young, too soft; it disintegrates."
Regardless of who wins the competition, Felix says he already knows who makes the best menudo he's ever tasted: "Me."
The winner is Celia Alvarez of Wilmington.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, a succession of dance groups in full costume perform regional Mexican dances.
David Quiroz, a serious young man of 5, watches one of the folklorico groups with a critical eye. He says he has been dancing for at least two years under the tutelage of his aunt, Yrma Horta, who heads the Wilmington-based Sol de Mexico (Sun of Mexico) troupe.
"It's fun," he says. "I wear a hat. I dance a solo with a girl, Marisol."
Sol de Mexico numbers about 60, Horta says, ranging in age from 3 to 25. They practice in a garage Horta has converted into a studio and have won several trophies for dances from the Michoacan, Jalisco and Norte regions.
Some of the teen-age dancers do not speak Spanish, Horta says. Others are not even Latino. But interest in the traditions and culture of Mexico endures.
"We even do Spanish dances, flamenco and paso dobles, " says Horta, a student at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
In fact, when Sol de Mexico takes the stage, Horta and her partners elicit shouts of "Ole!" from the crowd with performances of several Spanish numbers that feature much foot-stamping and cape-twirling.
There is a sudden migration of spectators from the folklorico stage, however, when the Banning High School marching band makes a triumphant entrance into the park. Culture is nice, but football is evidently king in Wilmington. A crowd gathers to watch the band members high-step their way through a jazzed-up version of "La Bamba."
There are other indications that, despite the Latin flavor of the day, the community's ethnic and cultural mix is resolutely American.
Like the long line at the Chinese food stand. Or the three black teen-agers in California Conservation Corps uniforms grooving to the strains of Rick James' "Mary Jane," as spun by local disc jockeys known as the Latin Touch. Or the late-afternoon performance by the soul band War, when the entire park seems to be singing along to "Cisco Kid."
Wilmington is a working-class community with working-class problems, but ethnic conflict is not one of them, says John Mendez, as he surveyed the crowd.
"I grew up right in this park," says Mendez. "All of us grew up mixed. I grew up in a black and Filipino area. Nobody knew colors or whatever. There were also people who came from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas. And all of us are still together."
The bulk of profits from the fiesta will go to the Wilmington Teen Center, a community institution that has provided counseling, recreation and job training for youth since the early 1960s.
Mendez says the young people who use the center and and helped organize the fiesta retain the spirit of their parents.
"Kids are going to do what their parents do. They see us all together no matter what color we are."