La Fiesta del Pueblo, North Carolina’s biggest Hispanic street festival, has a 23-year history of lively music and stellar street food.
But in recent years a new element has emerged – press-the-flesh politics.
The increased attendance of political candidates highlights the growing numbers and budding political clout of North Carolina’s Hispanic community.
Republicans and Libertarians have a strong history of courting voters at La Fiesta, according to William Saenz, spokesman for El Pueblo, the nonprofit that runs the festival.
“Republicans have been good on outreach,” Saenz said. “For the first time in a while, Democrats really showed up and it feels like progress.”
Hispanics have steadily increased their presence on the state’s voter rolls. In 2004, Hispanics made up one-fifth of one percent of North Carolina voters. That has increased tenfold, and today they constitute 2.3 percent of registered voters.
The three political parties set up tents cheek by jowl on Fayetteville Street, shaking hands and handing out leaflets.
Several Republicans acknowledged awkward moments campaigning at a Hispanic festival, given presidential candidate Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States.
Chuck Stuber, a retired FBI agent running for state auditor, said he emphasized his three decades of public service
“We discussed the issues, about what Donald Trump has said,” Stuber said. “As an FBI agent, I worked civil rights cases, I protected constitutional rights, I remained independent.”
Republicans have been good on outreach. For the first time in a while, Democrats really showed up and it feels like progress.
William Saenz, El Pueblo spokesman
John McNeill, a Democrat running in the 2nd Congressional District against Republican incumbent George Holding, said he kept getting asked variations of the same question.
“You aren’t going to build a wall, are you?” McNeill said. “I say, ‘Hell no, I’m a Democrat.’ ”
Sunday was a mild overcast day, a gray backdrop to the explosion of color and sound on the main stage at the south end of Fayetteville Street. Early in the afternoon, dance groups showed off traditional and modern dances from Peru, Brazil, El Salvador and Mexico. Later the crowd danced to a propulsive drum and guitar ensemble from Brazil and the smooth rhythms of Puerto Rican salsa. Long lines formed in front of booths and food trucks peddling Mexican tacos, Venezuelan arepas and Salvadoran pupusas.
The tuneful and the culinary complemented the civic. Volunteers threaded through the crowd registering voters, and party activists handed out pamphlets.
The most pressing issue for Hispanic voters is immigration reform, according to Paola Jaramillo, a reporter for the Spanish language newspaper La Noticia.
“But our big issues are the same for the whole community,” Jaramillo said. “We want good jobs and we want good schools. North Carolina is a great state.”
She bristled when asked about Trump: “Latinos who can vote need to go and vote.”
And not everyone came for the politics or food.
Bess Pridgen, a freshman at Chapel Hill High School, came to earn some extra credit points for her Spanish class. She will submit a selfie (proof of attendance) and a cultural essay on her experience.
“Fifteen points,” she said. “Whatever that means.”