SalsaFest impresses

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Deanna Best took home the Judge’s Choice for yet another year.

By Jon Johnson

SAFFORD – SalsaFest 2022 Sweet 16 is in the books and the festival held in Downtown Safford was as the cliche goes, bigger and better than ever before. 

Having covered nearly all of the previous SalsaFest celebrations, this year’s event was, in my opinion, the best it has ever been run. The event is put on jointly by the Graham County Chamber of Commerce and the Safford Lions Club, which originally began the festival.  

Thousands of people descended on Downtown Safford for the two-day festival that went late into the evening powered by some truly jamming local talent. Multiple bands got people groovin’ and several exhibitions by Extreme Martial Arts and Safford Dance Academy had the crowd oohing and aahing.  

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: The lead singer/guitarist for Hear and Soul kills his solo.

Gracing the Kempton Chevrolet Stage this year were Heart and Soul, Lucky J’s, and Raymond Gomez who sang a soulful acoustic set. 

Throngs of vendors were set up down the closed Main Street with a food court area set up halfway down. At the end, a classic car show drew the crowd to the edges of the festival.

The event kicked off Friday night with Mariachi Luz de Luna from Tucson on the stage. As with last year, the Bud Light Beer Garden was back, and this year there were after parties at local bars Sarah’s Bull Pen, Shane’s Place, and the Trailhead Hideaway, which also picked up an award for best restaurant red salsa. 

A pick-me-up Zumba class got people going in the morning and the Chihuahua Races brought the thrills as the unheralded, rookie Leeloo came from out of nowhere to win five straight races to knock off the previous unbeaten Corndog for the coveted first place sombrero.

“We didn’t even really train much,” said Matthew Scott, who along with his wife, Adi Scott, care for Leeloo. “We just practiced throwing the ball in the yard; throwing the ball in the field and she goes tearing on after it. That’s about the secret of it all, lots of love between a lady and her dog.”   

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

John Palomino and his black, ’64 Chevy Impala took home Best in Show for the SalsaFest Car Show. Palomino said working on cars is in his family’s blood and it is something they are passionate about. 

“I enjoy fixing up cars,” he said. “I own quite a few old vehicles around town. I’m from Safford and I grew up working on vehicles.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: John Palomino and his wife pose with the Best in Show belt for their ’64 Chevy Impala.

As for what everybody was there for . . . the salsa was a hit! Multiyear winner Deanna Best was up to her best once again and took home the coveted Judge’s Choice while newcomer Antoinette Rios won the People’s Choice. 

“This is our first year coming together (for SalsaFest),” Rios said. “I’ve been doing my recipe for 24 years. My children and I came out to have a great experience; have some family quality time and it’s been an amazing experience. I’m honored that the people chose me. So, this means everything. Thank you.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Lucky J’s perform their hits.

Judge’s Choice

First Place: Deanna Best

Second Place: Cody Ochoa

Third Place: Rylee Clonts

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Antoinette Rios is presented with a check for $500 for being the People’s Choice.

People’s Choice

First Place: Antoinette Rios

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Anette Rios celebrates her People’s Choice win with her family.

Second Place: Rylee Clonts

Third Place: Deanna Best

Best Green Salsa Restaurant

El Coronado

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herad: El Coronado won best restaurant green salsa.

Best Red Salsa Restaurant

Trailhead Hideaway

Jon Jonson Photo/Gila Herald: The Trailhead Hideaway won best restaurant red salsa.

Best Presentation 

First Place: Ernesto Esparza “No Double Dipping”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Ernesto Esparza, right, won Best Presentation for his “No Double Dipping” salsa station.

Second Place: Gina Peterson

Third Place: Antoinette Rios

Chihuahua Races

First Place: Leeloo 

Jon Johnson Photo: Matthew and Adi Scott pose with their fast chihuahua Leeloo.

Second Place: Corndog

Car Show

Best in Show: John Palomino 64′ Chevy Impala