Maria Taylor was born and raised in Peru and spent several years in New York and New Jersey before calling Athens home in 1988.
She said her move to Athens felt “like embracing family.”
“No one in New York and New Jersey said, ‘Good morning,’ to you,” Taylor said. “I moved to Athens, and it was so nice to see people waving at you as they drove by, and hear people saying, ‘Hello,’ to each other. From the very beginning I felt this city was my family.”
Taylor is now representing her City of Athens as this year’s Athena – Grease Goddess for the third annual Athens Grease Festival, hosted by the Spirit of Athens. The community nominated Limestone County women who give back to the city, and the festival’s two main sponsors, Fox 54 and WZYP, scored the nominations.
The sponsors based their scoring on the premise that Athena of Greece was known as a wise goddess who loved and protected the City of Athens, could be a warrior, had a creative side and had interest in the arts, crafts and agriculture. The Athens, Ala., version is someone who protects her city through her willingness to give back to Athens through community service.
As Athena – Grease Goddess Taylor will lead the opening ceremonies at 11 a.m. on Saturday during the Sept. 27 festival in downtown Athens. She will meet and greet guests and rest on a wooden thrown bedecked with laurel and red felt. Festival organizers will also provide Taylor with a toga, a torch, and for a Southern touch, a beauty queen sash made from burlap.
“This is such an honor,” said Taylor, who is so community minded, she has plans Saturday to volunteer with an event in Huntsville. “I guess I can take a few hours to be Athena and then go work.”
Shirley Crutcher, the Red Cross Disaster Program Manager, said Taylor is a perfect choice for Athena because she is a wonderful volunteer. Crutcher works with Taylor, who serves on the Red Cross board.
“She is a superwoman,” Crutcher said.
Although born in Peru, Taylor was not allowed to join the Peruvian Army. She immigrated to America and joined the military. She served 4 years in the Army and 20 years as the International Programs Manager for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Huntsville. Her service took her to Afghanistan and Iraq, where she received several awards.
Since moving to Athens, she has become a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Hispanic Ministry at St. Paul Catholic Church, an instructor with Learn-To-Read and a member of the Athens-Limestone Public Library Board of Trustees.
For Red Cross, Taylor serves on the Disaster Action Team, a group that rotates responding to house fires to provide for victims’ immediate needs. Taylor also conducts community presentations on tornado and fire safety and serves as a Spanish interpreter for Red Cross. Crutcher said Taylor goes to other counties during disasters to help, such as when Marshall County had a tornado about a year ago.
“She truly does feel like Athens is family, and she believes that people should treat each other like family,” Crutcher said.
Although Taylor calls Athens home, she strives to remember her heritage while embracing the customs of her Southern city.
Taylor helped organize the Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration in Athens. The festival has been held the past two years during October as a way to encourage sharing and understanding of Latino cultures with the community.
Mayor Ronnie Marks said Taylor promotes diversity by encouraging the Latino community to become involved in Athens through volunteering and by sharing Latino customs with Athens citizens.
“She is an asset to our city, and I am thankful she decided to call Athens home,” Marks said.
Taylor said the friendly actions such as waves and hellos are not the only reasons she loves Athens.
“I love The Square, all the trees and flowers throughout our city, our schools, and that there is so much to do like the Grease Festival,” Taylor said. “When I moved here and my kids started school here, they told me I did the right thing choosing Athens. They said going to school here helped put them on a good path.”
Since the Athens Grease Festival is a celebration of all things fried in addition to the Greek origin of the city’s name, those nominated were given extra points for having a best fried dish. Taylor’s best fried dishes are chicken, empanadas, which is like a fried pie, and milanesa, which is a thin cut of beef or chicken that is breaded and pan fried.
“I am amazed at the women like Maria who live in our community and work to enhance our already wonderful city,” said Athens Grease Festival Chairwoman Betsy Hyman. “We received nominations that included an Athens High student who works in many programs at her school, another lady who spends nearly all her weekends cooking stews for fundraisers, and other women who volunteer on multiple projects.”
● What: Athens Grease Festival ● Where: Downtown Athens ● Time: 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. ● Opening Ceremony: Starts at 11 a.m. with short parade led by Athena – Grease Goddess. ● Guinness Book of World Record Attempt: This is for largest toga party. Must wear white toga. Line-up at 2 p.m. at corner of Marion and Washington streets. Attempt starts promptly at 2:30 p.m. ● Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for ages 3-12 and free for 2 and younger. $1 off for toga wearers. ● Out of the Frying Pan VIP Party: 7 p.m. at The Loft 1880. Go to www.eventbrite.com. $20. ● Vendors: Food, beverages, crafts, etc. Vendor prices are not included in ticket purchase. ● Parking: Public lots around and near The Square and marked side street parking. Handicap parking will be designated on Jefferson Street. ● Major sponsors: Fox 54, WZYP, City of Athens, Limestone County Commission, Athens-Limestone Tourism Association and Athens State University’s Livingston Concert Series.