As the sounds of Latin music filled the Timonium Fairgrounds, Efren Perez and his workers helped fill the bellies of hungry festival-goers with tenderly grilled flank steak cooked at his vendor booth.
The 37-year-old owns a Colombian restaurant, Rancho Mateo, in Paterson, N.J., and, on weekends, looks to make extra money by serving food at Latin festivals. This year, he added Baltimore County to his itinerary, where he served food as part of the first Maryland Latin Festival.
"It's a big community," Perez said as he looked around at the vendors representing other Latin American countries. "The Hispanic community is many, many countries."
Thousands of people — from seniors and adults to teens and children — turned up Sunday for the festival, the first event for Latinos to be held at the expansive fairgrounds, organizers said. Musical acts performed on a large stage near the center of the infield of the horse racing track. Vendors selling clothing, food and services targeting Spanish-speakers were spread across the grounds.
This latest festival in Timonium is a sign of the times, as the Latin community continues to grow in Maryland. Latin festivals have been cropping up in recent years across the state, in Frederick, Gaithersburg and Wheaton.
Perhaps the longest-running one, Latin Fest, has been held in Patterson Park in Southeast Baltimore for more than 30 years.
Many of these festivals strive to be all-inclusive to members of the Latino community, offering music and vendors from Central and South America, as well as Mexico and the Caribbean. The festival in Timonium was no different, though some said most of the crowd seemed to have Salvadoran roots.
As they listened to the music coming from the stage, Abel Ruiz, 37, said his mother, Maria Ruiz, heard about the festival through a local Spanish newspaper, Mundo Latino, and wanted to come see it. They ate some food; Abel had Mexican, while his mother ate Salvadoran fare.
"She would rather there was more Mexican food," joked Ruiz, whose mother is Mexican and father is Peruvian.
Salvadorans are the largest Hispanic group in Maryland, and numbered 124,000 in 2010 — or nearly one-quarter of the state's total Hispanic population, according to the state Department of Planning. The next largest Hispanic groups were Mexican, 88,000; Puerto Rican, 45,000; and Guatemalan, 34,000, according to the department.
In 2000, the Baltimore region — including the city and five surrounding counties — was home to nearly 51,000 Hispanics. Last year, more than 128,000 lived in the region, according to population data from the planning department.
During that same time, Baltimore County's Hispanic population grew from nearly 14,000 to nearly 36,000.
Baltimore City's Hispanic population grew from 11,000 in 2000 to 27,000 last year.
The epicenter of Maryland's Hispanic community is farther south, in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Montgomery is home to 173,000 Hispanics, while Prince George's has 132,000, according to state population data from last year.
The festival was the idea of Luis Contreras, a native of El Salvador and a Baltimore entrepreneur with a range of businesses, including bail bonds, liquor, check cashing and jewelry stores.
Contreras, who lives in Pikesville, operates Big Louie's Bail Bonds in Greektown. To launch the Latin festival in Timonium, Contreras put up $100,000 of his own money, said the event's spokesman, Darrell Carrington.
"He wanted to do something that brought together the entire Latin family," Carrington said.
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