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A couple performs flamenco for a crowd at De La Guerra Plaza in Santa Barbara during the Old Spanish Days celebration, circa 1920.

Festive flamenco, La Danza Azteca, folklorico music, colorful costumes and celebrations, coupled with the traditional foods of Spain and Mexico, all are part of the Old Spanish Days of Santa Barbara, otherwise known as Fiestas.

The festivities began in August 1924 as part of plan to attract visitors to Santa Barbara in the summer months.

Fiestas is absolutely in my DNA.

This time of year, I become tearfully sentimental over the memories and myriad family photos relating to these special times growing up in Santa Barbara. 

Flounces, ruffles and colorful textile are not foreign to my wardrobe — a bit over the top at times, but so what, right? It's no surprise that I feel so much comfort in Fiesta-style décor and accessories.

When I reflect on all the memories, the smell of food being cooked over several days comes flooding back. The aromas of chiles being boiled for sauces and fresh pots of beans are still what I find warm and inviting. It's what I strive to re-create during this special time of year. 

Arriving in Santa Barbara

My maternal grandfather made his way into the United States in 1918, fled via train, dressed in women’s clothing in an effort to camouflage himself from Pancho Villa’s men.

At that time, Pancho Villa was capturing young men for his revolution. My great-grandmother dressed him in this get-up and told him to find work and send for the rest of the family in a mother’s effort to save her son from the clutches of war.

My great-grandfather, grandfather and great-uncle had been held up at gunpoint at their hacienda by Pancho Villa’s soldiers and robbed of the valuables in their home. This prompted a rapid exodus from Chihuahua, Mexico. With passion and ambition, my grandfather quickly made lemonade out of lemons. He took jobs laboring and cooking that allowed him to earn money to survive and, eventually, send for the rest of his family. He ultimately became a chef, then moved on to become an entrepreneur and successful restaurateur and bar owner in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.

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Traditional cheese enchiladas panned and ready for consumption.

Jesus “Jess” Pereyra, my grandfather, was masterful at creating joyful celebrations, and shared this gift with his family. I am very grateful to have a touch of him passed on to me through my mom.

My grandfather Jess made his way to Santa Barbara, met and married Juanita “Jennie” Martinez, my grandmother, who was born in Santa Barbara. This is where they made their home.

In 1924, Fiestas was in the planning stages of its inaugural celebration and this young couple became actively involved. In later years, during the 1940s, Jess owned a restaurant and nightclub on State Street called the Casino Latino. This restaurant was right at the entrance to De La Guerra Plaza where the El Mercado — still to this day — takes place during Fiestas.

Jess was actively involved in providing food for the Mercado and bringing vendors from Mexico. My grandmother Jennie always enjoyed being involved with the flower girls for Fiesta, and she did a fair share of cooking for the restaurant. There are so many stories and so many versions that I would have to write a novel. Someday, maybe.

For now, I want to share the dish that always made it to the table during the Fiestas celebration, for our family and friends. Enchiladas. Yes, these simply prepared, saucy rolls of goodness are a family favorite. We especially looked forward to cheese and onion enchiladas for our Fiestas. There are so many variations of this traditional dish, and I enjoy making them in traditional and nontraditional ways.

This recipe is very traditional, and I hope it becomes a favorite for you.

Enchiladas originated in Mexico and date back to Aztec times, where the practice of rolling a corn tortilla around various foods was common. We can all attest to that this practice is still going strong.

To all of you saying, “where’s the meat?” for this recipe, just add your favorite protein: poultry, seafood or whatever you prefer. There are no rules, remember? Make it your own. I firmly believe that recipes are merely a suggestion. Be fearless and do it your way; I certainly do.

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Grandpa Jess and Grandma Jennie, second couple at top left, gather for a festive photo with the originating Fiestas crew at El Mercado, circa 1920.

It's very hard to mess up a tortilla, dipped in yummy sauce, filled with morsels of food you like, covered with more yummy sauce, then topped with cheese. Lose the cheese if you would like; cheese is not mandatory. I do add fresh spinach leaves to my cheese and onion enchiladas. It's a great way to get in some additional greens. (However, never would I ever serve spinach in a cheese enchilada to my mom, as it was heavily frowned upon.)

My suggestion to you is to fill your kitchen with the aromas from great memories and celebrations from your life. If you cannot recollect anything profound, then start creating new memories now. It's never too late to start.

Remember to plate it up like you mean it!


*Makes one dozen cheese enchiladas

• 2 cups enchilada sauce (*store-bought, homemade or your favorite salsa) 

• 1 dozen corn tortillas

• 2 cups or more of Mexican cheese, or queso fresco, Oaxaca or Monterey Jack

• 1 large onion, diced

• ½ sliced green onion for garnish

• 12 medium black pitted olives

You will first want to blanch your onions. This will soften them and take the strong taste out. It actually brings out the sweetness. Bring a small saucepan with water to a boil, just enough to cover the onions. Put onions in, and once boiling, turn off and let sit for 5 minutes. Strain and set aside.

Heat sauce in large saucepan and simmer for a few minutes. Add additional spices or heat at your discretion.

Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan. After softening corn tortillas in the microwave for a minute, lightly fry tortillas in the hot oil, then dip in enchilada sauce until softened. Immediately place into an 11-by-7-inch pan or a baking sheet.

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Karen's sister, Sandra Louise Everette, a tiny flamenco dancer in 1953.

Add cheese (I use the Mexican blended cheese) and onion to tortillas in pan, roll up tortillas and push to the end of the pan.

Continue doing this with tortillas until pan is full. Pour excess enchilada sauce over panned tortillas. Sprinkle top of enchiladas with more cheese. (You can also prepare this in advance and refrigerate until ready to cook).

Add an olive to each enchilada. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Sprinkle sliced green onion over the top after baked. Let settle for about 5 minutes before serving.

*I make a homemade sauce, yet there are many canned versions that are very good. Use your favorite sauce. I will be creating a video lesson in making the sauce in the very near future.

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Karen Ortiz and her mother, Delphina "Del" Ortiz, who turned 95 in May, continue the annual family tradition of celebrating Old Spanish Days of Santa Barbara.

I then pondered how this dish could be “Latinized,” and discovered that substituting queso fresco for feta spoke to me. Queso fresco can be found in most grocery stores and is usually round and in clear plastic. While all brands are adequate, if you really want to step it up, visit your local carnicería or Mexican supermarket and get fresh cheese from the deli. Carnicería La Mexicana and Carnicería Jalisco in Lompoc and Vallarta Market in Santa Maria, all have excellent selections.

Karen Ortiz is a lifelong Santa Barbara County resident, born in Santa Barbara and currently residing in the Lompoc Valley. With culinary roots reaching back generations, Karen passionately explores recipes, flavors and spices from her Latino ancestors, and combs the globe for new and exciting dishes. For more delicious recipes, follow Karen's Facebook page at LatinaFresh. She can be reached at latinafreshsb@gmail.com