At 25, city's LatinoFest still a growing tradition


Jose Ruiz began LatinoFest at Fells Point to bring together Baltimore Latinos. That first year it featured 15 booths and a Puerto Rican folk band, which for two days played the same songs over and over, much like Ruiz had played his only record - Willie Colon's "Che Che Cole" - as a child.

"I had no budget!" said Ruiz, who still oversees the event, as he sat on a folding chair yesterday and finished off a pincho (a Spanish kabob) while people streamed into Patterson Park. "I had 50 bucks to my name, amigo."

The festival, which ended its 25th run yesterday, has grown considerably - as has the city's Hispanic population.

The traditional Nicaraguan folk band Sacasa didn't have to worry about entertaining the crowd for the entire weekend. The group was one of a lineup of 15 acts, including the Fania All-Stars, noted bandleaders, sidemen and vocalists associated with the rise of salsa.

And instead of fifteen booths, the event, now sponsored by Education Based Latino Outreach (EBLO), boasted dozens. Their offerings included everything from traditional delicacies and hand-assembled crafts to pamphlets on health care and education. Cingular, Sierra Mist and Toyota were among the corporate sponsors.

Orioles Miguel Tejada (from the Dominican Republic), Melvin Mora and Jorge Julio (Venezuela), and Rodrigo Lopez and Geronimo Gil (Mexico) also appeared, signing autographs and holding a question-and-answer session conducted largely in Spanish.

Between 1990 and 2000, U.S. Census data say, the Baltimore area's "Hispanic or Latino" population grew by roughly 70 percent to about 50,000, a number that doesn't account for its many undocumented residents. In the past year, a bilingual newspaper and a Spanish radio station have sprung up.

"Baltimore's now a hip town to Latinos," said Ruiz, EBLO's director of cultural and economic development.

Kim Burgo of Ellicott City strolled around the festival yesterday with her sons, Walter, 13, and Jerry, 11, who were wearing Tejada and Sammy Sosa Orioles jerseys and enjoying frozen treats. She said the Latino population's increase has been noticeable.

"There's more Latinos employed in our community," she said. "Certainly the fact that there's enough Latinos that you can have a festival is a sign of that growth as well."

Vendors praised the turnout and ability to connect with different members of the Latino community, which Ruiz said consists of people from 22 countries.

"The response from the Latino community has been incredible," Mario Velez, 52, president of Club Puerto Rico of Maryland, said in between serving customers sangria. "Colombiano, Boliviano, from Salvador, from everywhere. It's a huge community."

To the left of the main stage, a group of burly bikers with leather vests covered in pins and patches, and sunglasses shielding their eyes, were offering to take pictures of festivalgoers on their shiny Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

But Willie Torres wanted visitors to know his group, the Baltimore chapter of the Latin American Motorcycle Association, is about two things: fun and family.

"We're trying to get away from that [stereotypical biker] image," said Torres, of Pasadena. "I always tell them, 'Wave at the kids.' ... The kids get excited for that stuff."

The second language at Patterson Park all weekend was English, which was liberating for some. Maria R. Mendoza, a Honduran who has owned the Baltimore restaurant La Bahia for two years, said through an interpreter that business has been "so-so" because she finds it difficult to communicate to promote her business.

Ruiz launched a bilingual guidebook to at LatinoFest called Hola Baltimore that has information on nightlife, churches, community organizations and government. He's hoping it will help businesses such as Mendoza's get the word out.

"What you're going to find in here is those mom and pop restaurants that no one knows," he said. "The authentic stuff."

Ruiz also hopes the festival - and interest in it from sponsors and the non-Latino community - will continue to grow.

"We want to bring people here, to educate them," he said. "We want everyone to participate in all the activities. We don't come out and take anything from anyone. We're major contributors. We don't ask for anything in return, we don't complain, but, you know, we love this country.

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