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by Kathryn Krawczyk
Grease Pole Festival celebrates 46 years
The basic ingredients for any ethnic festival are essentially the same. Food? Check. Live music? Check. Grease pole? Well, that one is best left to Buffalo’s oldest ethnic festival: the Grease Pole Festival.
Now in its 46th year, the Grease Pole Festival will be held July 10, 11 and 12 at the Olivencia Community Center at 261 Swan Street. Friday’s events will run from 5pm to 11pm, while Saturday and Sunday’s events will run from noon to 11pm.
Though it has become a Buffalo staple, the Grease Pole Festival isn’t unique to the city. Festival committee member Wilmer Olivencia Jr. said it’s actually a tradition that the Olivencia Community Center’s founders brought with them from Puerto Rico. The Grease Pole Climb was part of the Fiestas Patronales, celebrations that were held throughout the year in towns all over the island. So when the center was built in 1968, its founders brought that tradition to Buffalo and started the Grease Pole Festival the next year.
The festival’s name comes from its main event: the Grease Pole Climb, and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
For the climb, a 35-foot telephone pole in a sand pit is slathered with car grease. Teams of five then have a set amount of time to try and reach the top. The first round starts at 15 seconds, but according to Olivencia, it’s nearly impossible to conquer the pole in that time. Still, all the teams get a chance to try, and then each round will go up by five seconds. The event usually lasts four or five rounds.
“It’s excitement from the time it starts to the end,” Olivencia said. “The teams are racing up the pole, and they’re constantly slipping and falling. Sometimes it might get a little R-rated because the pants might come down a little more than we expect, but we try to keep it PG.”
There’s more waiting at the top of the pole than just the satisfaction of getting there. Climbers can grab sausages, beer, or a money purse that holds around $1,000 to $1,500, depending on how much sponsorship the festival can get.
According to Olivencia there doesn’t seem to be a secret to reaching the top. “There’s really no preparation, just a burning desire to try and get up and reach the prize,” Olivencia said.
While the festival has only grown in its 46 years, one thing remains the same from year to year: Juan Texidor. A founder of both the Olivencia Community Center and the Grease Pole Festival, Texidor has been commentating the climb every year, with the exception of the year his wife died. “He’s our Puerto Rican Dick Clark,” Olivencia joked.
The Grease Pole Festival’s namesake event will take place on Saturday, July 11 at 5pm. However, there are plenty of other activities and events to check out throughout the weekend.
The festival attracts a variety of food vendors, mostly serving Puerto Rican dishes, but will feature Mexican, Asian, Peruvian, and other foods as well. There will also be plenty of artisans selling Latin American arts and crafts, carnival games and rides, and a number of musical acts with Salsa musician Ray de la Paz headlining the festival.
Above all, the Grease Pole Festival is the biggest fundraiser for the Olivencia Community Center. When the center isn’t hosting the Grease Pole Festival, it’s a vital part of Buffalo’s Hispanic community. It offers activities for all ages like Spanish dance classes, kid-friendly holiday events, and it’s also open to host weddings and parties for community members.
While it does offer a lot of fun events, Olivencia said the center also helps local Hispanic families in any way it can. It doesn’t offer housing assistance, but can refer families to agencies that can help them.
Perhaps most importantly the Olivencia Community Center aims to maintain Hispanic culture in Buffalo. “We just try to do our little part in keeping Buffalo on the map and letting new Hispanic families moving in on a daily basis know we’re here,” Olivencia said.
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