Annual event to be bigger, better than ever

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The Heart of Belen will undergo a temporary transformation next weekend.

City workers, private vendors and volunteers will shut down streets, erect tents and assemble bleachers in preparation for this year’s Rio Abajo Becker Street Festival.

News-Bulletin file photo: The annual Rio Abajo Becker Street Festival, sponsored by the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce, will run from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 28. There will be activities for the entire family to enjoy.

This is the 10th year of the free event celebrating the people, food and culture of the Rio Abajo Valley.

The festival will start at 10 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 28, and is expected to be larger than years past with 12 new vendors on hand to feed and entertain the crowds organizers expect to attend.

Belen area native Jerry Jaramillo and the Brown River Band will start things out for the nearly 6,000 people projected to partake in the festivities.

Many people look forward to the event because of the lack of family activities offered in the community, said Rhona Baca-Espinoza, the executive director of the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce.

“Families can come out all day long into the evening and be entertained without having to spend a penny if they want to,” said Baca-Espinoza. “And the monies they spend are really very nominal for the amount of entertainment they get.”

The make-shift fairgrounds — from Main Street to Fourth Street on Becker Avenue — for the day-long festival will be lined with various vendors offering fresh food, hand-made crafts and healthy competition.

This year’s main competitive attraction is the Southwest Regional Arm Wrestling Championship. It’s hard to say just how many people will turn out for the arm wrestling competition, but competition organizer Paul Risso is expecting an “epic” turnout.

The championship is expected to attract anywhere from 35 to 50 adult competitors from as far away as Wyoming, Risso said.

He said organizers have worked overtime to spread the word about the competition.

“We made a promotional video featuring Harla Mays. It’s a great venue for the competition with the raised stage and the movie screen behind it,” Risso said. “We listed it on all the arm wrestling web pages and lists.”

The tournament will also host kids’ wrestling matches that attract some fierce competitors.

“These two 9- or 10-year-old girls went for six or seven minutes,” Risso said. “They locked up and nothing moved. That was incredible, considering 30 seconds is a long match.”

Risso said he had no idea the arm wrestling competition would be so successful when he suggested it to the chamber’s board of directors several years back.

“Overall, it can be an exciting sport,” he said. “It gives people an opportunity to see something they wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to see.”

Besides serving as the ideal location for the arm wrestling competition, Harla Mays will sprout a beer garden to help cool down thirsty arm wrestlers and festival attendees.

New to the festival this year is a bike rodeo designed to promote bicycle safety among area youth. To accommodate the rodeo, organizers turned half of the Belen City Hall parking lot into a bike course with different educational stations that will teach children how to use hand signals, watch out for dogs and obey traffic laws.

Besides the instructional bike course, organizers will fit and pass out more than 100 bicycle helmets donated by several of the festival’s partners, from 10 am to noon.

Bike rodeo organizer Dubra Karnes-Padilla said she hopes the helmet giveaway and bike rodeo will encourage lasting bicycle safety habits among area residents.

“We would like to see it become a norm for kids to wear helmets when riding bikes,” said Karnes-Padilla. “We like to see more parents wearing helmets and setting a good example for children to follow.”

This year, one of the area’s largest employers and long-time festival supporter, BNSF, has taken on a larger financial role for this year’s event.

“We are so proud this year that our title sponsor is BNSF because that is the heart beat of this community,” Baca-Espinoza said. “They really give back to our community and is a huge supporter of our chamber and our mission of supporting business.”

BNSF spokesman Joseph Faust said the company has sponsored the festival the past seven or eight years, but decided to take on a more defining role this year.

“We have increased our sponsorship. Hopefully, that increase in support will help those planning the event to attract more acts and events that will benefit the entire community,” Faust said.

One of the more popular events of the festival is the balloon glow. Grant Crawford of the Valencia Flying and Retrieval Society and volunteer for the Rio Abajo Balloon Glow said it’s a pleasure to see the eyes of a 95-year-old light up with amazement just like those of a 5- or 6-year-old when watching the hot air balloons.

“We feel like that the public should get up the rare opportunity of getting up close and personal with the pilot and balloon,” Crawford said.

The bike rodeo course will, for a brief time, share the city hall parking lot with a 3-on-3 basketball tournament that will carry over into Sunday afternoon.

Once the rodeo is complete, organizers will set up the parking lot for the biker games competition for the returning participants in the 50-mile poker bike run.

The festival has undergone some changes in recent years. When it first started 10 years ago, it was a three-day ticketed event co-sponsored by the New Mexico Rodeo Association. But since there is no guarantee that rodeo finals will be held in the county, the organizers thought a change was needed.

“It became a one-day event and it was more centrally located and we wanted to redefine ourselves,” Baca-Espinoza said. “So we’ve taken on a new focus and it is celebrating the Rio Abajo music, food, culture and people.”

In the early days, the festival did have more of the country flair because they partnered with the New Mexico Rodeo Association for so long, she said.

“We had the wagon rides, the rodeo and lots of contests like that and that is how it got started,” she said. “It was just a celebration of our valley and all the melding together of the different cultures that make up the Rio Abajo Valley that is the Native American, Hispanic culture, the Mexican influence and the (Anglo) country and western.”

Baca-Espinoza said one of her dreams is to one day see the festival expand so the classic cars from the car show line Becker Avenue all the way to First Street.

The Rio Abajo Festival is the chamber’s largest fundraising event. The money the chamber raises from its fundraising events and membership fees support operations, scholarships and community projects