Rain didn't dampen sunny spirits at annual Latino Festival


The salsa and canciones were hot, but the weather was not.

That didn't keep a hardy handful from defying the rain yesterday to attend the 13th Annual Latino Festival in Fells Point.

"It's a tradition, every year we come here," said Paula N. Molina, who huddled beneath an umbrella eating rice, plantains and fried pork with her husband, Juan, and two young sons.

The two-day festival's traditional music and food are the main draw, she said. But the festival also is a public celebration of the family's Latino heritage.

"We teach them our original language, and original foods and traditions," Mrs. Molina said of her children. "We believe in many things, and we teach them to our children."

Preserving that heritage is one of the Latino community's biggest challenges, said Jose Ruiz, president of the East Baltimore Latino Organization, the group that sponsors the festival as a fund-raiser.

Though the 1990 census found only 7,638 Hispanics in Baltimore, the actual number is probably 15,000 to 20,000 and growing, said Mr. Ruiz. East Baltimore is home to most, he said, particularly upper Fells Point, O'Donnell Heights and the area north of Patterson Park.

Like other minorities, the city's Latinos are concerned about employment, housing and economic issues, said Mr. Ruiz. But ** there are other special concerns, he said.

Many speak English poorly and find themselves caught between two cultures, he said. That is especially true for the children.

"We've got kids who don't speak English or Spanish -- they speak 'Spanglish,' " he said. "If you don't know anything about yourself, you're not going to learn about others."

Many Latino children drift away from their heritage as they grow older, said Diana Carrion, educational director for the group. "They lose their sense of cultural pride and identity. We try to help them maintain their sense of cultural pride."

To support those children, the group sponsors an October-through-May tutorial program in English, mathematics and other subjects, and a program that provides about 100 children with school supplies.

The group also sponsors English classes for adults, and a Christmas party that served 250 children last year.

The two-day Latino Festival is the group's main fund-raiser. Last year, with attendance high, the group took in about $3,000, said Mr. Ruiz.

But as of midafternoon yesterday, only a trickle of festival-goers braved the puddles in Fells Point Market Square to listen to live Latin music and munch on traditional foods.

"If there were a lick of sunshine coming down, I have my drums here in the car," said Bill Sanchez, who came out to celebrate his Puerto Rican heritage.

Mr. Sanchez, who plays the conga drums, said he and his friends often set up their instruments in the plaza during the festival for an impromptu jam session.

Undaunted by the rain, he and a friend danced to taped salsa music on the wet pavement of the square.

The festival was an eye-opener for Alex Skotzko of McLean, Va., who had come to Baltimore with a friend and stayed overnight. "It's a lot of fun, we enjoy the music, have some pina coladas on a cold day," said Mr. Skotzko. "When I think 'ethnic' in Baltimore, I think more Eastern European."

Meanwhile, festival organizers vowed to carry on again today, from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., no matter what the weather.

"Obviously it's going to lose money," said Mr. Ruiz. "But we have to be out here."


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