Midtown: Community

Fiesta a chance to meet neighbors

I’m interested in our Latino neighbors. I mean really interested.

Maybe it’s because I’m a people-person in the truest sense of the cliché, with a personal passion for knowing why the people in my world are who they are. Maybe it’s because my African-American history is somewhat akin to theirs-in-the-making. Despite vastly different conduits into this country, struggles for justice and equality put us similar boats.

Or maybe it’s because in Wake County, Latinos are 10 percent of our population. They are our neighbors, literally, and our service providers, bosses, co-workers, friends, classmates and so on.

Whatever the reason, as I rearview Labor Day excitement and the city’s African-American Cultural Festival, I’m amped about La Fiesta del Pueblo 2012.

On Sept. 9, from noon to 8 p.m., the 19th annual festival will transform Moore Square into a celebration of Latino family, culture and community. The event is sponsored by El Pueblo Inc., a nonprofit Raleigh organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding, leadership development, advocacy, education and health awareness.

La Fiesta del Pueblo bridges an important, though familiar, social gap.

“One of the myths that often exist among people who are outside the Latin community is that Latinos are all the same,” said Angeline Echeverria, El Pueblo’s executive director. “Our countries have very different cultures.”

I suspect that’s a beauty of the La Fiesta experience: We will see all the diverse colors and art, hear the variety of music and folklore, and taste a smorgasbord of cuisine of Latin American and the Caribbean.

La Fiesta also will feature cultural displays, vendors and Ninolandia, or kids land, with interactive activities and free tickets to nearby Marbles Kids Museum, a festival sponsor.

Traditionally, Echeverria said, 65 percent of La Fiesta attendees are Latino.

“It’s a magic time for us,” said Cesar Merlos, who has volunteered for 14 years at the festival and said he learns new things every year. “Blending together all the essence of our history and of our traditions, it’s a great opportunity for the Raleigh community because they don’t have to travel to know about our Latin countries and cultures.”

Merlos credits the “brotherly” partnership extended by the non-Latino community for the festival’s success.

“No matter where you’re from, no matter what accent you have, no matter what flag you represent, everybody comes with one mission: To learn about as well as teach the new generations the way we’re growing, and where we are going,” he said.

A month to celebrate

The festival ushers in Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration of the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the United States and Hispanic culture that begins Sept. 15 and ends Oct 15. Sept.15 marks the day in 1821 that Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua declared independence. Mexico, Chile and Belize followed on Sept. 16, 18 and 21, respectively.

Here, Midtown’s La Fiesta del Pueblo predates El Pueblo, which developed to address community needs and engage people year-round, Echeverria said.

The first La Fiesta was held in Chapel Hill 1994 by a group of Latinos to “showcase to people all the positive aspects of our culture and, at the same time, to attract a lot of the Latino community members to learn about services available to them in the community,” she said.

The festival now is the largest fundraiser for El Pueblo. Economic woes, however, diluted funding everywhere and left La Fiesta del Pueblo smaller.

“It’s exciting for us to be part of the downtown renaissance, nice for us to be part of that kind of movement,” Echeverria said. “Having it outdoors, in a city park, has given it a return to its roots.

“It really feels like a La Fiesta del Pueblo.”

In English, it means “party of the people,” a gathering that is purposely grassroots, cultural, educational and fun.

“On a neighborly level, people should be interested to get to know their neighbors,” Echeverria said, agreeing with me.

Then, she said something that I totally agreed with: “And, on a human level,” she said, “who doesn’t like food, music and dancing? Who doesn’t like a party?”