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FIESTA: Source of Pride & Celebration of Culture

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Emily Salinas remembers walking through FIESTA Indianapolis for the first time: "Everybody knew each other. It was the one event that brought Latinos from all parts of Indiana together." She recalls her dad, Herman Salinas, telling her: "Aren't you proud to be part of this -- all these beautiful brown people?"

FIESTA Indianapolis remains the one day in our city when Latino culture permeates the Hoosier air. You can indulge in arroz con gandules (a rice, pigeon peas and pork dish) with a side of tostones (golden fried plantains) and imagine you're in Puerto Rico. Or try an authentic Cuban sandwich. Or a Honduran pupusa (similar to a corn tortilla but thicker and stuffed with cheese, beans or meat). Then stroll amid the vendors booths where you can buy a Peruvian sweater made from llama wool! Then you can lay back and watch the sun set to the rhythms of mariachi music. It was not always this way, though.

Chicharrones, a type of fried pork rind, are served with chile sauce at the 2013 FIESTA.  - JENNIFER DELGADILLO
  • Jennifer Delgadillo
  • Chicharrones, a type of fried pork rind, are served with chile sauce at the 2013 FIESTA.

When Salinas was a student at Clinton Young Elementary in Perry Township in 1985, there were not many kids in her school who looked like her, and most of her teachers couldn't pronounce her name. The lack of cultural representation in her surroundings made her feel culturally lost and inferior.

But then one of her teachers, Mr. Quintanilla, took it upon himself to take the Latino kids from her school to the fifth annual FIESTA Indianapolis, an event that was sponsored, at the time, by El Centro Hispano.

Back then, it was also a big deal that the event featured authentic Mexican food: "We were all excited about El Sol de Tala. It was the only [truly authentic] Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis in the '80s."

It's fitting that FIESTA takes place when it does, because September is an important month for many Latinos. All across Central and South America celebrations occur commemorating the anniversary of Independence: Brazil on Sept. 7; El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua on Sept. 15; Mexico on Sept. 16; Chile on Sept. 18; and Belize on Sept. 21. Other Hispanic-Latino holidays celebrated in September include Belize's Battle of St. George's Caye, Cuba's Our Lady of El Cobre festival, and Mexico's Día de los Niños Héroes. And so in the United States, September marks the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, where the cultural influences Latino immigrant communities have fostered are celebrated.

This year will mark the 34th year FIESTA Indianapolis has celebrated Latino culture in Indianapolis. La Plaza, headed by Miriam Acevedo Davis, has been organizing the event for the past 9 years.

Acevedo Davis has seen FIESTA change in the years since La Plaza began organizing the event. "We've tried to highlight the cultural aspect with more diversity in food, music and community from all parts of the Americas," she says.

The event has also grown. While Salinas remembers FIESTA as being a big event for Latinos, it certainly was not as big as it is now. In the 1980s, Hispanics constituted less than 4 percent of the Marion County population. It is now believed that number has more than doubled to more than 10 percent of Marion County residents being Hispanic. Also Hispanics have formed large communities in the suburbs and other parts of the state, becoming the fastest-growing ethnic group.

With vibrant culture, rich history and undeniably good food, many Hoosiers celebrate Latin America's -- and Indiana's -- diversity at FIESTA. - JENNIFER DELGADILLO
  • Jennifer Delgadillo
  • With vibrant culture, rich history and undeniably good food, many Hoosiers celebrate Latin America's -- and Indiana's -- diversity at FIESTA.

Acevedo Davis estimates that 15,000 people come through the American Legion Mall and partake in the festivities each year. "During the day we have people who want to come eat, listen to music and do activities," she says. "At night we have a different crowd; people come have a beer and hang out with friends."

This year FIESTA will feature Passport to the Americas, an activity where participants are encouraged to learn about different Latin American countries through crafts, music, dancing, food and drink. It will also be include a hot sauce tasting by Lava Lips, craft and vendor booths, and a schedule of entertainment that is guaranteed to please the crowds.

Many of the booths are manned by sponsors, but a significant portion of FIESTA Indianapolis is put together by community organizations and volunteers. Every year La Plaza has been in charge of the event, yellow school buses roll in at different points throughout the day, pouring out student volunteers from Central Indiana schools. Most of these volunteers are also students who are served by La Plaza through education programs that encourage non-traditional students to pursue a post-secondary education. Volunteering for FIESTA allows students to use the experience to build their resumés when they begin to apply to college.

FIESTA became a great source of pride for Emily Salinas. Seeing people reaching out to other Latinos helped with finding her personal identity. She found context and connection to her city and saw that not only were there other families like hers, but it was also a community that celebrated itself. "I thought, 'this is a cool thing!'" she recalls.

Vendors and cultural organizations alike pack into American Legion Mall during FIESTA.  - JENNIFER DELGADILLO
  • Jennifer Delgadillo
  • Vendors and cultural organizations alike pack into American Legion Mall during FIESTA.

Salinas has a daughter now. However, her experience with FIESTA is much different from hers. "She does not need that pride piece as much. There is no feeling of being lost about who she is ... so much work has been laid out. While at FIESTA and the days after, she speaks Spanish," Salinas says.

In fact, Salinas' exposure to this culture ignited her passion for helping other Latinos. She now teaches Spanish and Latino Studies at Belzer Middle school -- just like Mr. Quintanilla, she focuses her efforts on exposing children to Latino culture. Her students take part in La Plaza's education programs and also attend FIESTA every year.

FIESTA Indianapolis is a free event that will take place this Saturday, Sept. 20th from noon to 10 p.m.at the American Legion Mall in downtown Indianapolis (5 blocks north of Monument Circle between Meridian and Pennsylvania streets).

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