The Fiesta DC Conundrum
What we know of today as Fiesta DC began over 42 years ago as the Latino (and then the Hispanic) Festival of Washington. It began as a protest in Kalorama Park in the heart of Adams Morgan. By various accounts the Festival was organized by the late Marcelo Fernandez from the public school system or Father Rutilio Del Riego (now Bishop Del Riego) from the Spanish Catholic Center and a few others who claim credit. What is certain is that it was provoked by Carlos Rosario to get the city’s attention to the fact that well over 25-30,000 Hispanics lived in Washington DC and were essentially invisible, ignored and disenfranchised in their communities.
It’s essential to understand that the origins of this cultural event were political and in protest over discrimination. It explains why the organization of Fiesta DC functions more as an advocacy group as opposed to the organized management of a cultural event.
In its various incarnations the Festival has gone through dramatic changes and represents the aspirations of the immigrant population of the city like no other activity. It began with what is now called the ‘old guard’ many of whom are still alive. In its first decade the Latino Festival was led by Rosario, Pedro Lujan, Sonia Gutierrez, Jose Gutierrez, Angel Irene, Alberto Gomez and a host of others who could rightfully be called founders of this community. The election of a Hispanic Festival President became very contentious and was viewed as the symbol of Hispanic leadership, our Mayor!
Subsequent to that there was a phase where Enrique Rivera, Pedro Aviles, Arturo Griffith and what could be called the ‘young radicals’ took over the Hispanic Festival and made it their own. There is a famous moment in the Festival’s history when the parade (which at the time started on Mt. Pleasant & Park Rd. and ended in Kalorama Park) included a float of young guerrillas in outfits and fake guns walking behind a platform truck with a replica of El Salvador’s Izalco volcano, FMLN insignias and ‘Abajo Yankees’ signs painted all over it. Created quite a stir and led the news that year. During this period Eduardo Perdomo, a successful Colombian businessman, became involved. Initially allied with the ‘radicals’, he ushered in a period where Latino business owners got involved. Eduardo died of a sudden heart attack many attributed to stress -in part- over the Festival. Later, Eduardo’s son Carlos would take over the direction of the event in perhaps its best period on the Mall.
In the late 80’s I participated with Daniel Bueno and his wife Coco, owners of the Zodiac Record Shop at 1754 Columbia Road. We organized what was to my mind one of the most successful festivals in the community at the time. Coco became the first Salvadoran woman to head up the event and was supported by Daniel, DC’s premier Latino promoter and entertainment guru. Celia Cruz joined the parade, Willie Colon took over Malcolm X Park for an evening concert and we marched down Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Rd. like we owned it.
Somewhere in the early 90’s it was decided the Festival had become too big for our neighborhoods and the decision was made to move it down to Constitution Ave. between 9th & 14th St. where it died about a decade later. To their credit, a group of community leaders that included Aviles, Luis Rumbaut, Alfonso Aguilar, Roland Roebuck and others revived the festivity in the early 2000’s. At this point it was held at the Cardozo High School football field but very quickly became too big for that space. This new version of the Latino Fiesta augured in a turbulent period where Ted Loza took control, the FBI intervened and the Director and entire Board resigned. It was subsequently rescued by Ivonne Rivera who cleaned up the books, recruited a new Board and returned credibility to the endeavor. Now Fiesta DC is, once again, solvent and organized by Capital Construction mogul, Maria Patricia Corrales who counts on Carlos Perdomo as her Board chair. Ms. Corrales has done a good job in very bad circumstances. She has put a sizeable sum of her own money out of pocket to revive the festivity and its popularity has skyrocketed. It’s obvious to all of us that Mt. Pleasant Street, where the activity is presently held, has become too small and now there is a great deal of ‘schadenfreude’ over what comes next.
Since any of us can remember there has always been grumbling over the leadership of the organization and accusations of financial fraud and theft. The truth of the matter is quite different, and therein the conundrum. DC’s Latino Festivals have always had two things in common. By and large they’ve been underfunded and generally mismanaged. Nevertheless, they are an important piece of local history and provide a unique and welcoming experience, not to mention the economic benefits, pride, color and diversity it adds to our city. As with Gay Pride, Adams Morgan Day and yes, the Caribbean Festival, these celebrations form an important component of our city’s life.
What Fiesta DC needs is support from the entire community and assistance from city government. First and foremost find a venue for this activity that is both adequate to its purposes and consistent and compatible with the community around it. In my view that means a certain section of 14th St. which would be ideal. However, we need to defeat the notion that it is somehow impossible to block off a main street or curtail activities that take place on that street such as bus traffic, fire stations, etc. for 8 hours on a Sunday. If the community supports it and the city wills it, then make it happen.
Of course there are a number of caveats to this. Fiesta DC must secure and guarantee adequate funding to carry out a safe, clean and organized event. There must be a competent and experienced Executive Director and staff who can do the leg work, interact with the community and navigate the city bureaucracy. It must have an active, prominent and respected Board who insure stability for this vital non-profit organization over the long term and serious, well supervised fiscal controls to make sure monies are accounted for and spent wisely.
Fiesta DC needs to do some political work as well, letting folks know how it’s going to work and why it’ll be fun. There are a number of key elements that need to be well planned and discussed with everyone such as how hygiene and trash issues will be handled, what the security plans are, is it safe and family friendly and will there be alcohol, etc. Only when the leadership is strong, the organization clear and the finances solid can we expect to hold this event on a bigger stage.
Finally, the Latino community needs to think about this iconic affair as a legacy for all of us and greater participation should be encouraged and focused. It used to be there were open weekly meetings of the Festival committee and regular notices and updates of progress in the Hispanic media. The master builder of the parade, Enrique Rivera, who’s been organizing this wonderful part of the event for many years, has rarely had the luxury of planning it over a lengthy period of time. He’s always hurrying to catch up. At one point there were floats from 14 different countries, each with its own princess waving from the ‘carroza’, live music and marching bands and hundreds upon hundreds of Bolivian dancers (actually there still are, it’s an idiosyncratic specialty of the local Bolivian community –dancing in parades).
So we urge you Mr. Mayor to consult with your folks, collaborate with the organizers to strengthen the organization and look for solutions that will make us all proud. Fiesta DC is a valuable tradition that needs to be preserved in a manner that will make it a unique attraction for the District.