There are nearly as many listings for Martinez in the Asheville phonebook as there are for my own gringo surname, Marshall.
Western North Carolina has experienced a nearly 400-percent increase in its Latino population since the 2000 census, confirms YMI Cultural Center Executive Director Rita Martin.
And yet our local Fiesta Latina reports only marginal attendance from the local Hispanic community.
The YMI — sponsoring the 6-year-old festival for the first time — hopes to change that. This year, Fiesta Latina moves from Pack Square to a new home on Haywood Road in west Asheville.
“This puts [the festival] into the heart of the Latino community,” Martin explains. “The first-highest population of Latinos [in the Asheville area] is in Oakley, but there’s no good location in Oakley for a festival. The second-highest Latino population is in west Asheville.
“There are lots of new immigrants here, and some of them are intimidated to come into downtown,” she admits.
Some members of this recent influx, according to Martin, have yet to legalize their immigration papers, and are afraid to hang out too close to government buildings and local authorities. Others are still adjusting to the transition, and feel more comfortable in their own neighborhoods.
“There’s a definite need,” Martin adds, “to accommodate this population and educate ourselves about Latino culture.”
In fact, that’s how the festival began.
“In 1997, a weaver was coming from Mexico,” recalls Edna Campos of the Asheville Latin Americans for Advancement Society (ALAS). “Some folks at Catholic Social Services thought it would be great to plan an event around this exhibit and demonstration to broaden people’s horizons. Then they decided to add some music and some dancing. The Asheville Art Museum saw it as an opportunity to educate people, so they brought in information booths.” (These remain an integral part of Fiesta Latina.)
But fiesta, after all, means “party.”
“Latinos have to get together for fun sometimes,” points out Joe Rothenberg-Lapaz, head of Waynesville-based family band Son de Cuba.
“It’s part of our culture,” stresses the guitarist, whose 11-year-old son, Nick Rothenberg-Marquez, is a prodigy on timbales and congas.
“When you move to a new country,” says Rothenberg-Lapaz, “the fun goes away, and there’s just a lot of work and stress. There’s also a lot of fear. At times, the Latino community is afraid to come out, but this way, they’re [in familiar] surroundings.”
He adds: “This festival is about our culture. It gives Latinos a feeling that we count.”
“You don’t just sit and listen”
Another look at the Asheville phonebook reveals that Mexican restaurants now occupy their own section in the Yellow Pages, and possibly outnumber local Chinese eateries. Add to that the growing infatuation with Latino music, with bands like Eta Carina and Son de Cuba frequenting local clubs and festivals.
And with the music comes el baile. The dancing.
“This music is based upon dance,” explains Rothenberg-Lapaz. “You don’t just sit and listen to it and tap your foot.”
Deciding which came first — the love of Latino music or the dance craze that has locals learning sultry sambas, energetic salsas and other exotic moves like merengue, rumba and tango — is chicken-and-egg impossible.
So why try?
For his part, Rothenberg-Lapaz is quick to recognize area dance instructors like Maria Voisin of Salseros 828. “[They] have played a big part in getting more people dancing,” he declares. “The music supports the dancing.
“Latino music,” Rothenberg-Lapaz adds, “has blossomed. In October, we’ll play The Orange Peel for the third time this year, and that’s exciting.” (Son de Cuba will join Barbarito Torres of the Buena Vista Social Club for an Oct. 23 show.)
But there’s more to Latino culture, of course, than quesadillas and spicy dance moves.
“Even though we’re all Latino, and we all speak Spanish,” YMI’s Rita Martin points out, “there’s a lot of diversity within the culture.”
As part of the nationwide effort to focus on the Latino culture’s growing influence, we now have Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15).
Locally, groups such as Catholic Social Services, the ALAS and the YMI have collaborated on a host of events commemorating Latino heritage. These include a photography exhibit (Erin Barker’s bilingual Recollections of Home, Recuerdos de Me Tierra at the YMI’s Gallery One) that will run concurrent with Fiesta Latina.
Other such festivals exist around the country, like Raleigh’s 10-year-old La Fiesta Del Pueblo — probably the largest event of its kind in this part of the country — which Campos agrees is a huge success.