STORY BY SARAH LEBLANC
Last weekend, Latin-American cultures enriched Des Moines and brought awareness to the Hispanic community through the annual Latino Heritage Festival, located on the Court Avenue and Walnut Street bridges.
Joe Gonzalez, the newly appointed executive director of the Latino Heritage Festival and retired Des Moines police officer, enjoyed coordinating the Festival for the first time this year despite the challenges the event faced.
“There’s been some bumps in the road, off and on, (but) it’s a learning experience,” Gonzalez said. “We’re trying to work through it and trying to make it a good event.”
The first Des Moines Latino Heritage Festival was originally scheduled to begin in 2001, but it was postponed to 2002 due to the events of September 11.
“This was started…in order to highlight our culture, highlight what we give back, what we do, and also to be able to show pride in our culture because if you don’t celebrate your culture then you kind of lose your identity,” Gonzalez said. “It was a good way just to kind of highlight everything and to educate everybody else on our culture.”
Gonzalez estimates that around 10,000 people visit the festival each year to enjoy food, music and explore the booths of around 90 vendors. From piña coladas to political candidates, the festival provides a plethora of choices and activities for families to enjoy.
“It’s a family event,” Gonzalez said. “In our culture, family comes first.”
Besides being a fun family event for the community, the festival also serves as a conduit for a political message. The festival hosted Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
“With the political climate and some of the things that are being said, it’s even more important for our friends out there to come and learn about us to know what we are about,” Gonzalez said. “It’s even more important now to educate everybody about what good we do and to have our folks who have had to listen to all of this negative stuff to show pride and not be afraid to come out and celebrate.”
Despite Iowa’s general lack of diversity, Gonzalez stressed that issues of immigration and diversity should not be overshadowed.
“There’s always this misunderstanding that we’re coming over here and draining things that we’re all criminals,” Gonzalez said. “What gets lost in it is how many good people there are here that give back to this community, give back to this country, and they’re a really important part of our economy, a really important part of our communities and our cities and our state.”
Religious organizations also had booths at the Festival.
Compañeros, the coordinating body for Des Moines Presbytery and the mission’s trips to El Salvador, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the group’s journeys to El Salvador on October 1.
With a position at the festival for around five years, Linda Anderson, who stood at the Compañeros booth, enjoys community members’ continued interaction with the map placed at the group’s booth.
“A lot of people come by and look at our map and say, ‘I live there,’” Anderson said.
“It’s a really a friendship ministry with good connections.”
With the abundance of booths, several Latin American countries were able to be represented at the Festival and expand upon ideas of diversity among Spanish-speaking countries.
“It’s kind of special, we also educate the greater community about the diversity within our Latin American community,” Gonzalez said. “When you hear someone speaking Spanish they (might not be) from Mexico, they could be from any of the 22 countries. We have representation from almost all 22 countries within central Iowa.”
The festival also works to promote education about Latin American cultures and diversity within and outside of Iowa and the United States.
“We have such a diversity and so that’s what we should be able to celebrate,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a celebration of giving back… it’s a celebration of what we’re all about.”