George Mercado grew up under the regime of Argentine dictator Juan Peron and arrived in America on the Fourth of July in 1968, unable to speak English and with little money in his pocket.
Tomorrow, the Severna Park businessman will serve as grand marshal of the Greater Severna Park 4th of July Parade and Festival.
"I was so proud to be selected," Mercado said. "The honor was very emotional for me because now I know that others realize how much I love America."
The parade's sponsor, the Greater Severna Park Chamber of Commerce, believes that Mercado's selection as grand marshal is most appropriate.
"The fact that George first arrived in this country on the Fourth of July," said Linda Kahn, the chamber's executive director, "makes him a wonderful choice for grand marshal of a Fourth of July event. Since coming to Severna Park, he has supported the business community and the activities of the whole community.
"He embodies the theme - `Proud to be an American' - completely," she said.
Mercado arrived with his wife, Maria, and their daughter, Marisa, a toddler at the time. After living in America for several years, "we decided this is the country for us," he said. "America is an organized country, socially advanced so you're free to agree or disagree."
The family lived in Baltimore before moving to Severna Park. The jewelry store Mercado opened 30 years ago on Old B&A Boulevard, first across from the Lode Severna Park Village and later in his own building at Old B&A Boulevard and Marbury Road, has played an important part in the growth of the Greater Severna Park business community.
Mercado is a familiar figure outside his shop as well, whether he is wearing a chef's hat while serving up spaghetti at the annual Community Center fund-raiser or donating significant pieces of jewelry to be auctioned by organizations such as the Severn Town Club and Hospice of the Chesapeake.
Maria Mercado, who also is active in the community, supports her husband's philanthropy. Among her interests are the Severn Town Club and Hospice of the Chesapeake, and she is president of the Severna Park Republican Women's Club.
The honor of leading the Fourth of July celebration comes at a pivotal time for Mercado. This spring, he sold his jewelry business to his longtime business partner, Richard Pfisterer. Mercado and his wife are building a home on the Eastern Shore, where they plan to enjoy retirement near their daughter, their son-in-law and their two grandchildren.
Mercado, who also speaks Italian and some French along with his native Spanish, smiles when he talks about his Americanized daughter.
"Everyone in the family speaks with an accent," he said, referring to him and his wife. "But our daughter speaks Spanish with an English accent."
Before the start of the parade at 10 a.m., participants will gather at one of two churches on Benfield Road: St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church and Our Shepherd Lutheran Church.
Youngsters entering decorated bicycles, tricycles and wagons in competition will gather and register from 9:15 a.m. to 10 a.m. at a different location: in front of the Chamber of Commerce building on Holly Avenue.
Helmets are required for youngsters on bikes, and they can be decorated ahead of time or on the street that morning. Rod Reddish of Pedal Pushers, a Severna Park bike shop, will award prizes for most original, most beautiful and most patriotic bicycles, tricycles and wagons.
There also will be a drawing for free bike helmets.
A new event for older children and adults, the American Bike Brigade, is part of this year's parade. Sponsored by the Youth of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, participants in the bike brigade will assemble on the front lawn of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church. The contingent will be accompanied by patriotic music.
Judging takes place at the corner of Riggs Avenue and Old B&A Boulevard; awards will be presented after the parade at the festival in the Park Plaza shopping center.
The festival, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., will feature food, games, a moon bounce, pony rides, a rock climbing wall, and entertainment by Schuyler Sutton and Adam Richie, and the musical group Out of the Blue.
After the festival, the public is invited to swim for free in the Community Center's indoor pool until 4 p.m.
Parade-goers are asked to take donations of nonperishable food items that will be collected along the parade route by volunteers from the Severna Park Assistance Network.
For information on parade-related activities, call the chamber at 410-647-3900.
For information about the free swim, call the Community Center at 410-647-5843.