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Small town Hispanic Heritage festivals seek support to continue gaining recognition

Courtesy of Maria Sanchez
Conexion Hispana/Hispanic Connection
Carthage's Hispanic Heritage Celebration featured dancers, music, a car show and vaccine clinic. Organizer Sanchez said one obstacle for this year continued to be COVID-19, as one of the singers had to cancel after being infected. "We were able to identify the need is there," Sanchez said about the clinic that offered both COVID-19 and flu vaccinations.

Thousands of people in Carthage, Missouri crowded into the city's Central Park to participate in the second annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration this Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. That's according to one of the event organizers Maria Sanchez.

Sanchez said about 3,000 people came to the festival, a major increase from last year's event, the first of its kind in the city that is about one-third Hispanic or Latino.

Sanchez, along with Luis Rangel, Maria Marroquín, Fernando Carbajal, Francisco Topete and Silver Vargas, make up Conexión Hispana/Hispanic Connection's event organizers.

One large difference between the first and second festival, Sanchez said, was the support from city officials and people outside the Hispanic community. She said this helps the city’s large Hispanic and Latino population.

“I think what they've gained is a lot more trust with our city administrators, seeing things are being done in the city that is, you know, unifying, all of us and being included," she said. "We're feeling like we have a more open line of communication."

And the festival, as well as the work Latino leaders put into organizing the event in turn impacted city leaders. Carthage mayor Dan Rife recognized Hispanic Heritage Month through mayoral declaration for the first time at the festival.

Sanchez expects to double attendance at the 2023 Hispanic Heritage Celebration, increase the hours of the Festival and bring in more entertainment. And, she added, she thinks the support is already there to do so.

"It was a big learning curve. And it also brought us a lot more networking with the community. And now that they see how well it's been organized, now, after this event, more people reached out to us like, 'Hey, we didn't participate, for for whatever reason, but please make sure that you reach out to us. We want to be there for the third one,'" Sanchez said.

She attributes much of their success to building trust throughout the community.

Almost 300 miles away

Some small towns are just starting out this year and hosting their own festivals. O'Fallon Latin Festival organizer Randi Torres Irizarry said O'Fallon was home to many "firsts" with its Latin Festival.

O'Fallon Latin Festival
O'Fallon's first Latin Festival featured traditional dance groups, vendors and music. "There were so many people that I've met this year that I have, otherwise I don't think we would have crossed paths, if you will. These people mean so much to me," organizer Randi Torres Irizarry said.

"It was an opportunity in which I am grateful. It was so unexpected. It was probably about 1,300 to 1,500 people throughout the day, which I really wasn't expecting that many people," Torres Irizarry said.

He explained one reason he decided to take on the effort of organizing a festival for the city was because he didn't want to keep going to surrounding cities to celebrate Latin culture. He started planning O'Fallon's last January by first going door to door, business to business, asking for support. He said for some of the organizations who signed on, this was their first time supporting a Latino event.

The electrician/carpet cleaner/handyman by day said he spent up to ten hours a day working on the festival, and has an entire list of every organization and person who helped.

Torres Irizarry said even though so many people came together to make this event happen – and he's so thankful to those who made it possible – he hopes to have more support next year.

“There's so much organization that I'm going to be open, it would have been wonderful to have one or two volunteers who would have done a couple of…a few things," he said. "So I wouldn't be so occupied throughout the day. And I would have a little more time."

Torres Irizarry said six months ago, he didn’t even think a Latin festival could be a reality for O’Fallon, so he was pleasantly surprised and learned so much. And he added, next year he plans to host a two-day festival in a larger location.

Kassidy Arena is the Engagement Producer for KBIA. In her role, she reports and produces stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focuses on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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