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Celebrating pride with a fiesta


Alicia Torres' feet beat a fancy pattern in front of the stroller where her granddaughter, Mary Lou Velazquez, 2, shook her tiny fists to the merengue music.

Nillely Velazquez of Dundalk sipped a long-necked strawberry daiquiri and watched her mother and niece dance at yesterday's 26th annual Latino Fest in Patterson Park, taking place at a time when the city's Hispanic population is booming and growing more politically aware.

Proceeds from the festival, which continues at Patterson Park today, will support its main sponsor, Education Based Latino Outreach, a nonprofit group in Fells Point that provides after-school and weekend English and computer classes, Executive Director Jose Ruiz said.

Between yesterday and today, Ruiz expects 30,000 visitors to the Patterson Park festival -- a huge growth from the handful of people who attended the first Latino Fest in 1980.

"The population has exploded," Ruiz said. "More and more Latinos keep coming to Baltimore."

Yesterday, two of the newest members of Baltimore's Latino community, 20-month-old Sara Isabella Haghighat, and 23-month- old Kylie Kessler, fingered brightly painted wooden butterflies, donkeys and chickens as their parents chatted nearby.

Christina Thomas and Farhad Haghighat met Mike and Jean Kessler in a Guatemalan hotel when both couples traveled to the country last year to adopt their daughters.

"They should be exposed to things that make them know that we remember their heritage," Jean Kessler said.

Yesterday was hotter and more humid than the weather in their native Mexico, said Daisy Vidales and Eric Bautista, who sat in the shade, cooling themselves with paper fans and nibbling roasted corn. But Vidales and Bautista had more on their minds than the heat.

"I want to be a resident of the U.S.," Vidales said, explaining that getting her immigration papers in order has consumed all of her free time.

Senate debates on immigration and a series of nationwide rallies this spring has galvanized the Latino community, giving this year's festival more of a political feel than last year's, Vidales said -- an opinion not lost on some who turned out yesterday.

"The Hispanic vote is going to be very important in the political scene this year," said Elder Frankie L. Powell, one of six volunteers handing out blue stickers supporting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "... They're part of Baltimore. They're part of the state of Maryland."

Volunteers from Mayor Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial campaign and staffers from his Hispanic Liaison Office also worked the festival yesterday. At the liaison's booth, festivalgoers picked up Spanish guides to city services and black T-shirts and buttons bearing the word Creer, which means "Believe" in Spanish.

Lorena Beltran, a six-year employee of the office, said that she has seen Baltimore's Latino population change over the years. Men who used to arrive in the U.S. alone to work for a short time and send money home now are accompanied by wives, children and elderly parents. Although the heart of the community still lies in the Fells Point area, Latinos are moving across the city to more suburban areas like Falstaff and Hamilton, Beltran said.

Realtors, insurance providers, lawyers and cable companies appeared eager to tap into the Latino market yesterday.

"There's an increase in the Hispanic population buying houses," said Maritza Herrera, an employee of Premier Mortgage Funding, which had a booth at the festival for the first time this year.

But for most visitors, yesterday's festival was an escape from everyday concerns such as rent and mortgages, and offered a chance to focus on food, music and friends.

"Where are the pretty ladies?" a member of the merengue group La Firma asked the audience in Spanish. The crowd cheered, and band members beat drums and shook maracas as he asked, "Where are the Guatemalans? The Nicaraguans? The Puerto Ricans?"

Under a blue tarp, Nelson Martinez and his family heaped plastic plates with the foods of their native El Salvador: beef tongue tacos and pupusas -- thick corn tortillas stuffed with pork and melted cheese.

Kedwin Salgado and Patricia Lavalle, Hondurans who now live in North Point, munched on skewers of chicken and strolled past the booths.

"It's sort of like a festival back home," Salgado said.

The 26th annual Latino Fest, sponsored by Education Based Latino Outreach, continues from noon to 8:30 p.m. today at Patterson Park. Information: 410-563-3160.

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