Latino fest heats up city

Benefit: Event marks the growth of the Hispanic community and raises funds for a local educational project.

June 27, 1999|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Fred Avila wanted his son to connect with their Latino culture -- the merengue music, the exotic food and stews, the infectious steps of a salsa or bomba y plena, the traditional dance of Puerto Rico.

Before taking his 7-year-old son to their homeland next month, Avila brought his boy to Baltimore's Latino Festival at Patterson Park, a two-day celebration of the vibrancy and beauty of the Caribbean and Latin American people.

"I'm really getting into the culture," said Avila, 41, a respiratory therapist whose family left Puerto Rico for Florida before moving to Perry Hall. "I really want my boy to get into it, too. I love the language and the culture. When you're around your own people, there's nothing like it.

"They're a happy group," he said.

Braving a heat spell that felt subtropical, hitting 90 degrees in the city, several thousand people turned out yesterday to celebrate Latino culture, sampling tamales and corn fritters, rum drinks and the Rumba at the 19th annual festival. The event, expected to draw as many as 10,000 visitors over the weekend, benefits a nonprofit educational group that works with Hispanic children and their families.

Nearly 20 years in city

"The Latino community is very diverse," said Jose Ruiz, who heads Education-Based Latino Outreach, the festival's organizer. "This is an opportunity for everyone to share our culture and our customs."

Beginning in the early 1980s, thousands of Hispanics began migrating to Maryland, many settling in Upper Fells Point. Today, as many as 20,000 people from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America are living in Southeast Baltimore, community organizers say.

The signs of the new wave of immigration are everywhere along Broadway and Eastern Avenue. Dozens of grocery stores, restaurants, even courier services, cater to the neighborhood's Spanish-speakers.

Responding to local needs

Rosa Joseph runs one of those restaurants.

A Dominican Republic native, she moved to Hyattsville in Prince George's County with her husband in 1980. Several years ago, she attended the festival in Baltimore, and began cooking dishes from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico -- fragrant stews of goat, chicken and beef, with side plates of rice and fried plantains.

It wasn't long before Joseph found a market for her food.

"Everybody kept asking me, `Do you have a restaurant?' " she said, taking a break from a line of festival customers. "I finally said, `I have to open one up in Baltimore.' "

In 1998, she did. She runs the Caribbean Food Restaurant on Eastern Avenue.

Avila and his son finished their food from Joseph's stand and found some shade under one of the few trees in the chained-off festival area at Eastern and South Linwood avenues. With some of the region's finest salsa and rumba bands scheduled to perform over the weekend, Avila was asked whether he planned to take the salsa lessons offered at the festival.

"I don't need salsa lessons," he said proudly. "It's in the blood. You hear that music and you start moving. That's all there is to it."

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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