FORT MADISON — Carl Rippenkroeger isn’t Hispanic. But he cooks Mexican food with the subtlety of someone who was brought up around Hispanic culture.

“I grew up down here,” he said of the largely Hispanic neighborhood around 34th Street and Avenue Q. “I’ve been coming down here since I was a little kid.”

That’s why he and his wife, Sarah, were cooking steak, chicken and beef tacos at the 96th annual Mexican Fiesta Friday night. Rippenkroeger is considered a part of the Avenue Q family.

“It (the festival) hasn’t really changed a whole lot. It’s still a good time,” he said. “As a kid, we came down here and ran with all the neighborhood kids. We just kind of ran wild. As we got older, it was more sitting around and enjoying the music. And the food, of course."

Though the three-day long Fiesta is a celebration of Mexico’s independence, those who live in the neighborhood say it’s more than that. It’s a festival that celebrates Hispanic culture. A celebration that unites everyone, regardless of their skin color.

“Most of my friends are Hispanic,” said Rippenkroeger, who is the food coordinator at the Iowa State Penitentiary. “I pretty much grew up eating Mexican food.”

A plain, unpainted picnic table sat outside Rippenkroeger’s food tent, emblazoned with the name Tyrone Lozano. Hand scrawled signatures and messages covered the top, paying tribute to Lozano, who died in May. Lozano was one Rippenkroeger’s cooking partners during the Fiesta. More importantly, he was a friend.

“He and his brother cooked with us, and they were twins,” Rippenkroeger said.

Memorializing the dead with a picnic table is a long standing tradition at the Fiesta, and once the tables are signed and sealed, they never leave Avenue Q. Several examples could be be seen up and down the avenue.

“Everyone down here is like a big family,” Carl’s wife Sarah Rippenkroeger said.

In many cases, those family ties are literal rather than figurative, often springing from the Prado family. Ray Prado lent Rippenkroeger his driveway to set up the food tent. Bridget Prado organizes the La Fiesta Dance Troupe, outfitting the girls with Jalisco dresses and teaching them traditional dance moves months before the festival begins.

“I’ve been doing this forever,” Bridget Prado said. “I married into the Prado family, and it’s just natural that I get into it.”

The La Fiesta Dance Troupe performed a number of traditional dances throughout the night, including the box dance, where they shuffled their feet and swung their dresses.

“We do every Sunday practice to learn step by step, and we go over it to make sure we don’t make any mistakes,” said 15-year-old Nikilah Garza.

Garza lives in the neighborhood, and started dancing last year.

"It’s fun. It brings happiness and stuff. We’re all like a family. I really enjoy this,” she said.

Her friend Madissyn Brewer, 12, Fort Madison, has been dancing with the troupe since she was 8. But she never gets tired of wearing the brightly colored dresses decorated with ribbons that circle the bells of the flowing skirts. Jalisco dresses are an imitation of Spanish dresses that the women of the court wore.

“Some of them (the dresses) are handed down, and some you can get handmade online,” Brewer said.

Bridget Prado said the dancing troupe goes back as far as anyone can remember. There are no restrictions on who can join based on race, religion or background.

“Anyone can join the dancers,” Prado said. “It doesn’t matter.”

The final day of the Mexican Fiesta will begin at 11 a.m. today, with formal celebrations and dancing starting at 6 p.m.