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Photo by Aileen Humphreys
Cousins Stephanie Verdin and Miguel Moreno, both 5, of Victorville, dance Saturday in Dana Park during the fourth annual New Mexico Chili Cook-off and Belen Fiesta as Sylvia McQueen and her father, Ernie Griego, both of Barstow, look on.

Festival celebrates Barstow’s New Mexico connection

BARSTOW - For Joe Chavez, New Mexico-style chile is more than a hobby - it's a vocation.

The New Mexico native grew up in Los Chaves, a small town near Belen, and moved to Barstow in 1963 to follow the promise of a job with the Santa Fe Railroad. Although he raised his children in Barstow, Chavez said that he goes back to New Mexico each year to follow his passion for chile.

"It's the best chile you can eat," Chavez said of the spicy New Mexico style fare.

Every year, Chavez carts 1,400 35-pound sacks of chile peppers from New Mexico to Barstow. Between August and October, he uses his free Amtrak pass to make the trek to New Mexico and rents a truck that he loads with New-Mexico grown chile peppers, beans and spices to cart back to Barstow, Chavez said.

Many of those peppers were cooked and consumed Saturday at the 4th Annual New Mexico Chile Cook-Off and Belen Fiesta at Dana Park.
Chavez himself said he has never entered the Barstow chile contest, citing a potential conflict of interest since he is supplying many of the ingredients. At home, it's a different story.

"There's not one day that I don't eat good chile," Chavez said.

The Barstow chile cook-off began as an idea of Barstow's El Portal 95.9 FM radio station, and the Barstow Hispanic Chamber of Commerce quickly got on board, said El Portal station owner Manny Lopez, who is also president of the Hispanic Chamber.

Last year, the festival expanded to become Belen Days, in recognition of the fact that many of Barstow's families migrated from the New Mexico town in the mid-20th century to work for the railroad, at Fort Irwin and on the Marine Logistics Base, Lopez said. Among those transplants was Congressman Joe Baca, D-Calif., who was born in Belen and moved to Barstow with his family as a young boy.

Barstow Mayor Lawrence Dale and Councilman Joe Gomez proclaimed April 5 to be Joe Baca Day, in honor of the congressman, who made an appearance at the chile cook-off. Baca told the crowd that as the youngest of 15 children, he began his career shining shoes, delivering newspapers and working as a janitor.

"You can be a janitor and still be a United States Congressman," he said.

Next year, Lopez said, if enough business sponsorships come in, the festival organizers hope to add more flourishes to the event, including carnival rides and crowning a queen of the festivities.

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4123 or

Chile tips from the experts

• Joe Chavez, a New Mexico native who carried his passion for chile to Barstow, says the secret to a good chile is to blend the chile peppers. Add oregano, garlic and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and add pork, he said. Chavez also suggested adding pinto beans.

• Olivia Mesa, the first place winner in this year's New Mexico Chile Cook-Off, got her recipe from her grandmother. Mesa would not disclose all of her secrets but said, "It has to be hot, and it has to have pork." Mesa also suggested adding potatoes.

• Selina Sanchez, a contestant in this year's cook-off and past winner, grew up making chile in Belen, N.M. She recommends adding flour to the mix and experimenting with different combinations of meat and vegetables, including potatoes and corn.

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