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Grease Pole Festival celebrates tradition

Picture six grown men climbing atop one another as they try to scale a wooden utility pole coated in grease surrounded by a sand pit. Some of them tall and some small, slip and slide as they race to the top before time runs out.

This certainly isn’t an everyday pastime, but for one of the oldest ethnic festivals in Erie County, it’s tradition.

This weekend marked the 46th annual Grease Pole Festival, a three-day event that celebrates Puerto Rican and Hispanic heritage with live music, food, games, rides, and the culmination of the weekend – the grease pole competition.

Five six-member teams participated in the challenge on Sunday, with the goal of trying to climb to the top of the pole by standing on one another’s shoulders, with one team member standing at the bottom of the pole to act as a base. The pole was covered in grease, making it extremely slippery, and several of the contestants slipped down, causing a domino effect and toppling the rest of his team.

The contest started with a 25-second time limit to complete the challenge, and after all five teams tried and were unsuccessful, the clock added an additional five seconds after each round. Once a team made it to the top and grabbed an item hanging from a string, they were the winners.

This year’s victors – Team South Park of Buffalo – were no strangers to the event, and completed the challenge in 50 seconds. Team South Park claimed the title last year, and has won many times before.

This year’s feat was team member Carmelo Bonilla’s 10th victory. He said this was the closest thing to being in the major leagues, and he looks to continue competing because of the long tradition and celebration of the Puerto Rican and Hispanic culture.

Several food stalls and trucks lined the street at the Augustine “Pucho” Olivencia Community Center, 261 Swan St., as hungry passers-by made their way among them.

Gladys Morales, a former resident of Medina, now owns Wepa, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Pennsylvania, and made her way back to the Buffalo area for the three-day festival. Morales said she was glad to be back to a place she once called home.

“The Grease Pole Festival isn’t something you see too often. I remember seeing this when I was a little girl, but to see it now as an adult, it’s meaningful,” she said. “It’s good to come from another state and see the differences in the different Puerto Rican communities. That’s very important.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, honored U.S. Army veteran Wilmer A. Olivencia with a Purple Heart and other medals earned for wounds sustained during his service in the Vietnam War. The Olivencia family is active in organizing the event each year.

More than 4,000 people were estimated to have attended the festival, and those like Jay Olizera of Buffalo, came for the tradition and the history.

“It’s a part of culture that I get to come to because I can’t just fly to Puerto Rico whenever I want,” Olizera said.

Olizera has attended the festival off and on since he was in high school, and brought his son this year per his request. The family even travels an hour to Rochester to attend similar festivals.

Maritza Vega, vice president of the Hispanic Heritage Council and a volunteer, said the goal of the event each year is to bring people together to celebrate and remember where they come from.

“It gives a lot of pride to the Puerto Ricans especially, and the Hispanics of Western New York, because it gives them a place to feel honored that their language and their heritage is celebrated,” she said.