NEA Arts Magazine

Vamos a la calle!

Celebrating DC's Latino Arts and Culture

03-vamos.jpg

Aerial shot of the crowd at the Latino festival

Photo by Rafael Crisóstomo

Fifty-five mallets beat against fifty-five drums. Boom. Clack. Clack. Ba-da-da-da-dah, boom. Can you hear that? Da-da-da-DA-DA-DA. Boom! An occasional collective chant, "Batala!" rises up from the sea of drummers. Row upon row of women -- drums strapped around their waists -- rhythmically swing their arms as they attack and release. There's Mia Foreman in the second row, a shock of black curls dance on her head as she controls the sound of a medium-sized dobra. Hildi Pardo, smiling, bangs on a large Brazilian bass drum called a surdo. Every Saturday a crowd forms at the fringes of the small park outside Farragut West metro station to watch their explosive, yet disciplined practice. Ranging in age from 21 to 65, Batala DC is entirely directed and conducted by women, the all-female arm of the international percussion group Batala.

Man in elaborate colorful costume

Photo by Rafael Crisóstomo

Batala is just one of 180 groups who perform at Fiesta DC, the annual Latino arts and culture festival currently based in Mount Pleasant, a multicultural urban enclave in DC. With 60,000 attendees, it is one of the biggest free local festivals in the District of Columbia. By attracting record crowds from all over the metro area, the festival, now in its 39th year, helped lay the foundation for a wave of urban revitalization in the District. Residents and out-of-towners flock to Mount Pleasant Street the last weekend of September, which is also National Hispanic Heritage Month, for what always promises to be an upbeat celebration of Latino culture, food, and, most of all, community. It wasn't, however, always that way. 

Historically, the U.S. capital has been a popular destination for immigrants. Due to varying degrees of political unrest and social injustice, the 1970s inspired a very specific wave of migration for Latinos, who came to the District from all over Latin America: Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua. These disparate groups of Latino refugees weren't always welcomed in DC, or, for that matter, counted. In fact, the Festival Latino was born out of a protest against what many people of Hispanic descent considered inaccurate Census numbers. The 1970 U.S. Census claimed some 17,300 odd Latinos lived in the DC metro area, but after the first Festival Latino it became apparent that the Latino population was much, much larger. "It was a strategy to demonstrate how many people were here," said Olivia Cadaval, folklorist and chair in Cultural Research and Education at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. "Let the press count us." Or as the current Festival Director Alfonso Aguilar put it, the attitude back then was "Vamos a la calle!" (Let's go to the street!).

Fearsome caped devil figure leaping

Photo by Rafael Crisóstomo

And that's exactly what politically savvy DC resident Carlos Rosario had in mind. He reached out to and mobilized fellow Latino immigrants. In fact, he held meetings after film screenings at the old Colony Theatre to talk about job skills and progress. Building off the Great Society's wave of social change, Rosario helped establish the Festival Latino in 1971, which, according to Cadaval, "became a catalyst for forming the Latino community in Washington, DC." The event has become such an important tradition and institution to area Latinos that Cadaval made it the focus of her 1988 dissertation: Creating a Latino Identity in the Nation's Capital: The Latino Festival.

Originally, the festival called Adams Morgan's Kalorama Park home. In the mid- to late 1980s, as the gathering swelled in size, it moved to the National Mall to accommodate the masses and the massive floats. Then, 9/11 happened. This tragedy coupled with a mix of conflicting ideas and internal differences led to Festival Latino's sudden demise. Mexican-born Alfonso Aguilar and a small staff resuscitated the cultural celebration -- renamed Fiesta DC -- in 2004. Today, unlike in the past, the festival is an actual not-for-profit organization with a broader scope. In a single day, Aguilar and a host of volunteers manage the following: 40 musical acts across five stages, a Children's Festival, a Health Fair, a Science Fair, a Tourist Pavilion for embassies and consulates, a parade of nations, and a lot of art. "Our priority is local artists," Aguilar explained. "It's good exposure, and you can really help them." In addition to coordinating September's jam-packed one-day festival, Fiesta DC also puts on smaller festivals throughout the year and produces its own publications, such as the comprehensive Latino Cultural and Business Guide.

Car with the word Bolivia on a banner across the front bumper with marchers behind

The Bolivian float and marchers head down 16th Street, NW, during the 1977 Hispanic American Festival parade. Photo from the Star Collection, DC Public Library, © Washington Post

The choice of Mount Pleasant as the primary festival site was a strategic one. Located just northwest of Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant has been affectionately dubbed the "Village in the City," and, walking down its eponymously named main street, it's easy to see and feel why. Anchored by a traditional town square, the community is self-contained, comfortable, and quaint.  Brimming with cultural diversity, the area has a reputation as "a little UN," as highlighted on one of Cultural Tourism DC's historical markers. As you walk around the area it's impossible not to notice the presence of Latinos and Latino markets or restaurants like Pupuseria San Miguel and Haydee's.

Haydee's proprietor, El Salvadoran-born Haydee Vanegas, moved to Mount Pleasant 20 years ago and ever since she has attended every Festival Latino (or Fiesta DC). "When I arrived," Haydee noted, "I had never seen a festival like that before. I remember it as if it was yesterday -- the people, their customs, the art from all over Latin America. I'd never seen so much art in one place!" Even after opening the restaurant in 1990 with her husband, Mario Alas, she always makes time to step outside Haydee's doors and take in the sights and sounds. She especially loves the parade. On that note, she's most certainly not alone.

Photo by Rafael Crisóstomo

Enrique Rivera, who was president of the festival from 1982-83, and Aguilar both agree that the heart of Fiesta DC is the parade of nations, or el desfile de naciones. Aguilar pointed out that "there's roughly 1,000 dancers from approximately 20 different countries. You see something different from each one. And you see babies, grandparents, all the generations represented. It's all very family-oriented." Rivera, who today volunteers as the parade coordinator, emphasized, "It's so culturally rich and colorful. In fact, it is the only event at which groups from all over Latin America and Spain come together to demonstrate their dance, their dress, their folklore. Mariachis from Mexico, Spanish Flamenco dancers, Bolivian folk dancers. You name it." Rivera joked that he's never actually been able to see the parade live because he's too busy running the show. "Okay. Who's next? Cuba, Paraguay, Dominican Republic, Brazil…"

Photo by Rafael Crisóstomo

 

Ba-da-da-da-DA-Boom. Batala DC's Mia Foreman, who helps book the group's shows, has played the Fiesta two years in a row. Mia Foreman, who calls Los Angeles home though she resides in DC, has lived in Ecuador and the Dominican Republic and feels that for a day, "you're transported out of the States and you don't even need a passport." She added, laughing, "People go crazy for us. We all like the parade. It's narrow so you graze up against the crowd and lock eyes with people. Kids are dancing. We're dancing. I took a picture of myself and a group of young girls from Guatemala, in full make-up and local dress. They were so happy and proud!"

Fiesta DC continues to flourish as a 'fiesta del barrio' where for a day Latinos and non-Latinos of all stripes congregate to eat and laugh and dance. The next festival is scheduled for Sunday, September, 26; more information is available at www.fiestadc.org. Pues, vamos a la calle!