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Latino festival draws hundreds


They called it a "beautiful" beginning of bigger and better things to come.

The Annapolis area's first Latino festival -- nearly scrapped last week when the city denied a permit -- attracted hundreds to a sunny field in Anne Arundel County's Quiet Waters Park yesterday. Under a blue sky on what many called a perfect day, members of the area's growing Hispanic population shared their culture with others and rejoiced in a festival geared toward their community.

"It's beautiful," declared Luzelena Salazar, 38, who sat on a blanket enjoying the music with her husband and their three daughters.

The Bolivian native, who moved to Annapolis almost 10 years ago, said she has attended Latino festivals in Virginia and was pleased one was held in her community.

"A lot of people were waiting for this," she said.

Festival Annapo-Latina, sponsored by the Organization of Hispanic/Latin Americans of Anne Arundel County (OHLA), went smoothly. Only days earlier it looked as if it might not go on at all.

Since fall, the festival had been planned for city-owned Truxtun Park, near the hub of the area's Latino community. But on April 27, organizers were denied a city permit because officials feared not enough police would be available with two other major events in town -- the downtown Maritime Heritage Festival and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Walk.

Enter Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, whose recreation and parks department saved the day by offering picturesque Quiet Waters Park, just outside the city limits.

"This is the first and hopefully just the beginning of Hispanic festivals in this county," Owens told the crowd yesterday.

Still, Rick Ferrell, OHLA's Cuban-American president, blamed the last-minute change in venue for a decreased number of Hispanic attendees, many of whom could have walked to Truxtun Park. Shuttle buses that OHLA provided from Truxtun were underused yesterday because of the lack of advertisement, he said. Several food vendors, who would have offered a broader variety of Central and South American cuisine, were not able to attend after Ferrell initially canceled the event, he said.

But the dispute also garnered the festival increased media attention, which helped to attract a large number of non-Latinos, Ferrell said.

"The cultural intent of the event, it's a complete success -- exposing ... our community to the Hispanic presence through music, food, arts and crafts," he said.

According to the latest U.S. Census data, Hispanics make up 6.4 percent of the Annapolis' population, rising to 2,301 from 483 in 1990. The county's Hispanic population has jumped 89 percent during the past decade, from 6,815 to 12,902. Still, Hispanic leaders say those figures are understated, and estimate 25,000 to 30,000 Hispanics live in the county.

"When I first came to Annapolis in '88, there were no Latinos at all," said Elmer Zepeda, 31, originally from El Salvador. "But now the community is growing up -- it's amazing."

Several local politicians came out to court the votes of festival attendees -- including incumbent Mayor Dean L. Johnson and Democratic mayoral candidates Alderman Ellen O. Moyer and Maureen Lamb. A handful of community organizations, government agencies and businesses staffed tables at the event.

But it was the music of five bands demonstrating a range of Latin American music that drew most to the park yesterday.

"When you listen to some music, it is like you're home," Salazar said as she listened to Mystic Warriors, an Ecuadorian Incan group.

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