By Matt Martinez, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service   Published Aug 08, 2020 at 10:01 AM

Although COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of this year’s Mexican Fiesta, the organization behind the event isn’t taking off.

Instead of planning the annual three-day festival that celebrates Latinx culture and heritage, volunteers are assembling and distributing face masks.

"We always try to step up when the community is in need," said Teresa Mercado, the executive director of the Wisconsin Hispanic Scholarship Foundation, or WHSF.

WHSF hosts the festival, which is normally held at the Henry Maier Festival Park in August and has been around for 47 years.

It has partnered with MaskUp MKE, a social awareness campaign to encourage residents to wear face masks, to create the only volunteer-staffed mask production facility at its main office, 2997 S. 20th St.

So far, volunteers have produced 45,000 masks, and WHSF has enough material to make 40,000 more, Mercado said.

The organization is distributing the masks for free, along with information on the importance of wearing a face covering during the pandemic.

"We’re helping people"

Karla Huerta, an international student adviser at Milwaukee Area Technical College, is a volunteer who’s worked with WHSF for 20 years.

Huerta said in normal times, she would be selling food, bread or margaritas to help raise money for WHSF. Now, she’s stapling ear loops to masks with her daughters and mother. Together, Huerta said, they’ve put together about 500 masks.

"I felt like it was an emergency," Huerta said of this summer’s experience. "We’re helping people in the community protect their families."

Mercado said over 200 volunteers have stepped up to help assemble masks. To keep them safe, WHSF has created protocols, including checking the temperatures of volunteers before they begin work.

Mike Kryshak, owner of Rebel Converting, provides materials for face coverings to MaskUp MKE. He said WHSF has been a "godsend."

Having access to masks is especially important in the Latinx community, Kryshak said. The predominately Latinx 53215 ZIP code is a "hotspot" for COVID-19. As of Aug 5, Latinx residents lead all ethnic groups in Milwaukee County in cases with 6,317.

"For many of them, they can’t stay home," Kryshak said. "They can’t afford not to work."

How you can help

Anyone looking to volunteer can call WHSF at (414) 383-7066 or visit its website.