From the heart

It all began five years ago, when a Mexican weaver was coming to Asheville and looking for a place to display her work. Several local groups, including Catholic Social Services and the Asheville Art Museum, got together to help make something happen.

“They decided that a good way for people to come in was to have other events also,” recalls Fiesta Latina Committee member Edna Campos. “It was a chance for the [Spanish-speaking] community to come together and sort of build a coalition around this event.”

The budding micro-festival quickly snowballed into something beyond what organizers had originally envisioned. Local businesses got interested in having a presence, and the idea of a family-oriented, alcohol-free event became central. Children’s activities were planned to complement live music and dancing. It gave Asheville’s small-yet-active Latino community something of its own.

Since then, explains Campos, the fiesta “has become this street festival with multiple booths and entertainment. It is a great example of the community coming together.” For Campos (herself a Latina), “The most important aspect of [the Fiesta Latina] is to share our community with the mainstream community.”

“Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Mexican-American”: to varying degrees, these imprecise descriptions all point to a phenomenon more cultural than truly ethnic. To Fiesta organizers, the term Latino describes a culture that derives its sense of unity from the common language and heritage shared by those whose roots lie in the Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America.

“I was really Mexican-American before I moved to North Carolina,” explains Campos, “and now I’m Latina. Most of us first identify with our country of nationality, so some will be Puertoriquenos [Puerto Rican], but they’re [also] Latinos. We’re in this general mix.”

There are also those, notes Campos, who aren’t ethnically Hispanic but are still an active part of the community. These are people who “were either born in the United States or are of some Anglo background. They speak Spanish, or they have this affinity for the culture.” Campos calls these people “Latinos de Corazon,” or “Latinos of the heart.” As she observes, “They didn’t choose to be born non-Latino [and probably] would have chosen [to be Latino] if they could have. It’s kind of hard to define. We don’t want to leave anybody out.”

At first glance, Asheville seems like an unlikely locale for an event like the Fiesta Latina. According to the 2000 Census, Hispanics account for only 3.8 percent of the city’s population and a mere 2.8 percent of Buncombe County’s population (statewide, the figure is 4.7 percent). All told, there are less than 6,000 Latinos living in the Asheville area, compared to more than 38,000 in the Charlotte area.

“If you look at the Latino population in this area,” explains Campos, “we’re not as great in number as, say, in the Charlotte area, or Wake County, or even in the Greenville community. But we do have in this area a variety of people that come from different ethnic backgrounds and different countries, as well as from different metropolitan areas here in the United States. It’s a real coming together.”

One reason for the Fiesta Latina’s continued success is that the local community is surprisingly active. In fact, Asheville’s Spanish-speaking community is booming.

The 1990 Census showed a mere 1,173 Hispanics living in the Asheville area — less than 1 percent of the total population. The last 12 years have seen dramatic growth.

“When the corporate entities look around and see that in the last census [the Latino community] expanded 356 percent,” explains YMI Executive Director/Fiesta Latina coordinator Rita Martin, “that’s a population that they definitely want to hold on to and to target. Not only just for business reasons, but also because there are a lot of philanthropists. It’s about business, but it’s also about a love of the community and helping out the community.”

A booming new community means a new consumer market to be penetrated, and companies like Western Union have been quick to lend their support to the Fiesta in hopes of gaining a foothold in the local Latino market. At the same time, more service-oriented entities like Mission St. Joseph’s have also gotten involved, bringing outreach programs and free health screenings to the Fiesta.

“We have sponsors who have demonstrated in other communities that they are good corporate neighbors,” says Campos. “They see us as part of that neighborhood.”

But it isn’t just big corporations that take an interest in the Fiesta. Many local businesses have also gotten involved, and the West Asheville Business Association is now partnering with the festival, in hopes of enlisting more of West Asheville’s Hispanic-owned businesses in their organization.

Campos also mentions the possibility of moving the Fiesta across the river, though no decision has yet been made. “I could see us taking our festival to the West side,” she says. “We like the downtown area, and we especially enjoy the support of the [Asheville Art] Museum, but a lot of our folks haven’t yet learned to come downtown when it’s not the Latino Festival. They’re still not coming to Bele Chere, coming to Goombay, coming to the museum, coming to shop here. This is one way of getting them to come to the ‘centro’ and getting them to become part of the business community here.”

What accounts for the explosive growth in this area’s Latino population over the last decade? Sharon Bigger, publisher of the Asheville-based Spanish-language newspaper El Eco, says Latinos come to Asheville for the same reasons everyone else does: it’s just a nice place to live.

“Most people I’ve talked to say how happy they are to be here in the mountains,” says Bigger. “Many have moved from larger cities like Los Angeles or from large-agriculture rural Florida. Many have had the experience of living in areas where the Latino community is organized and in positions of formal leadership. So I think living in a place now that is more ‘tranquilo’ and beautiful combined with having experienced Latino organization in the past makes people hopeful.”

But many local Hispanics are still somewhat reluctant to fully embrace a celebration like Fiesta Latina, even though it was designed with them in mind. As Bigger explains: “As an organizer for the newspaper, I have learned that the Latino community can be really shy about coming out for events. I have also seen that the more kid-oriented things are, the more people come out — and Fiesta Latina is definitely for all ages. I like what Fiesta Latina represents: a Latino presence, a celebration of culture. I also think that the crowd is different there than at, say, a mass at the Basilica or a live-music night at La Cama, and that’s OK.”

Last year’s Fiesta Latina drew an estimated 12,000 people — roughly twice the estimated local Latino population. So who else joins the party?

“It’s a combination of a lot of different groups,” explains Martin. “You have your core Latinos. Every time there is a Latino event, they come out and support it. Then you have your groups that have Latino interests, such as the nonprofit organizations. They have their supporters, and people that they advertise out to. Then the bands have their followings. All of our bands, with the exception of the mariachis, are local bands or have their roots in Western North Carolina. And since we’re right on Pack Square, there’s the Biltmore Avenue crowd that kind of just swings by. Word of mouth is our quickest advocate.”

Now, organizers are building on that base. “We’ve been a real good informational fair for Latino families,” says Martin. But this year, “We’re trying to … strengthen the cultural aspect of it. … We’re making an extra-conscious effort just to make it more Latino-flavored.”

Besides the cultural and informational booths, Fiesta Latina will also feature many child-oriented activities.

Storytelling, says Martin, is one new offering with an ethnic tinge. “There’s some old fables and myths that come from Central and South America. One of them is Madame Moon [“Dona Luna,” a story] about the moon and her scribes. There’s [also] a mural project. Once the kids get the story told [to them], they’ll get to put what they’ve just heard into vivid pictures and stuff. We’re thinking of some health-type games. We’re trying to at least add the Latino twist to it.”

And what’s a festival without live music? This year’s acts range from the traditional Mexican music of Mariachi Michoacan to the Cuban-inspired sounds of headliner Son de Cuba.

“A lot of these bands have a local Latino following,” explains Martin, “and we’re hoping that by choosing these bands, people will feel more comfortable coming to downtown. … If it’s somebody they know, that gives them that much more incentive to come out.”

For the organizers, pulling the community together remains a central goal of Fiesta Latina.

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