A full line-up of musical acts and performers, street dancers, cultural booths and even a corn-eating contest are among the entertainment that is expected to draw approximately 50,000 people to the annual Iowa’s Latino Heritage Festival Sept. 6-7 in downtown Des Moines.
The festival will take place on the Walnut Street and Court Avenue bridges. Organizers expect this year’s festival, which has become the most widely attended cultural event in Iowa, to attract the largest crowd yet.
JoAnn Mackey, executive director of Latino Resources Inc., the nonprofit umbrella group that oversees the festival, started the statewide event 14 years ago as a way to celebrate the contributions from the more than 22 Latino countries that are represented in Iowa.
At the time, Mackey was working for the Office of Latino Affairs in the Iowa Department of Human Affairs. As part of her job, she tried to implement programs to assist new immigrants with issues such as health care and housing.
“I did a lot of traveling throughout the state,” she says. “I quickly realized that people who were coming (to Iowa) weren’t only coming from Mexico but from many different countries. We weren’t getting out the word like I wanted to (about issues affecting immigrants).”
Mackey watched a documentary about a festival that took place that was an informational event but also a lot of fun for those who attended. She decided something similar should be created in Iowa for the Latino population. She approached her supervisors, who gave her the go-ahead to create such an event.
Mackey’s own heritage is of Mexican descent. Her grandfather brought her father and uncle, then 6 and 4, to the United States from a small city in Michoacán, Mexico. She was born in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A new cultural celebration in Iowa is born; awareness of Latino culture increases
The festival has grown larger and more popular each year, unless weather played a role in decreased attendance.
“I’m very happy with the results and how it’s turned out through the years,” Mackey says.
The festival has become more important as the state’s Latino population has grown. Thousands attend it to experience the rich and varied Latin-American cultures and traditions found in Iowa.
One of the highlights of the festival is the cultural booths that feature the Latin American countries that are represented in Iowa. The individuals in each booth are either from or descendants of that country or are well educated about the country, its culture and traditions. Booths feature foods, drinks, clothing, games and more about each of the countries.
There are now almost 163,000 Latino residents in Iowa, which is a 96 percent increase from the 2000 U.S. Census, according to the State Data Center of Iowa. Latinos now represent 5.3 percent of Iowa’s 3 million residents. By 2040, the Latino population in Iowa is projected to reach 436,138 residents, which will comprise almost 13 percent of the state’s population.
The festival serves as a way not only to inform the public about the Latino community, but as a way for the business community and others to reach out to Latinos and distribute information about health care, jobs and more. Businesses now request bilingual employees. Human resources officials from various corporations come to the event to find prospective employees.
“It’s wonderful for the non-Latino community,” Mackey says. “They come to our festival and see our beautiful traditions and learn about our culture. The sponsors and the businesses view this community as an untapped market.”
This year’s festival features new, returning acts that will interact with attendees
This year’s events include an elote (corn) eating contest, an art exhibit, fire safety exhibit with Smokey Bear and much more. There also is a children’s area, where kids can makes crafts, break piñatas every hour, play on free inflatable rides and watch “Lucha Libre,” a drama about villains and heroes that is popular among children and adults.
“Luche Libre is something that draws everyone, from grandmas who cheer for their favorite hero to children who boo the bad guys,” Mackey says. “It will be a spectacle.”
There will be entertainment all day long both days. Brazilian Moves, Capoeira and Omeyocan Dancer (Aztec) will perform in the streets. Bands range from Mariachi to Latin rap. Musical entertainment includes La Nueva Excelencia, Mariachi Zapata, Chicos Kumbia, Parranderos, Izcali and Xplicit. The headliner this year is Chi Town, which will perform for the street dance to end the festivities on Saturday night.
3XW Entertainment will perform professional wrestling matches every half hour both days with a main show.
The festival also features a wide variety of food from pupusas, empanadas, elote and aguas frescas to tacos and fruta picada.
Mackey says the food is the most popular aspect of the festival, followed by the entertainment and then the cultural booths.
“I’ll have people send me emails afterward and say ‘I had no idea we had people from’ wherever,” she says.
Cost to attend is $5 for adults and $1 for children 12 and younger. For more information and a full schedule of events, visit www.latinoheritagefestival.org or visit the Iowa’s Latino Heritage Festival page on Facebook.
Part of the annual festival includes the poster contest. The posters, billboards and other printed materials that advertise the festival feature the design of an Iowa college or university student.
About 60 entries are submitted each year for the contest. This year’s winner was Elizabeth Lindgren.
“We have a lot to take into consideration, and it’s a very difficult decision, given the wealth of talent the students present in their designs,” Mackey says.
Festival board members and a local graphic artist select the poster contest winner. The idea for the contest originated more than a decade ago from a former board member who was a graphic artist.
The winning poster is based on several criteria, which include presentation of color, whether the design could be used on billboards and other materials and how well the poster takes into account the diversity of the Latino community, Mackey says. The festival honors more 22 Latin-American countries from North, Central and South Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.
Board members also favor designs that show evidence the student researched Latin American culture and incorporated it into his or her submission. One year a student included monarch butterflies in her design. When asked why, the student said she had learned in her research that monarchs migrate each year to Mexico during the winter months. That student was the 2008 poster contest winner.
Mackey to pass the baton
Mackey, who has overseen the one-woman operation, usually begins preparing for the following year’s festival as soon as the current one is finished. She has fundraising to do, grants to write and entertainment to book.
But that will change after this year’s event. Mackey will retire, and Joe Gonzalez, a former lieutenant with the Des Moines Police Department, will take over as director. Gonzalez has been working closely with Mackey this year to ensure a smooth transition.
Mackey says she has felt a calling for many years to do missionary work and has recently decided to focus her efforts on helping the “border children,” the thousands of children from Central America who have fled violence in their homeland and sought safety in the United States.
“I’m very happy about the new chapter in my life,” she says.
Gonzalez has been part of the festival’s board since the beginning and was handpicked to take over the operation. He is a recognizable face in the community and served an integral role in the relationship between the Des Moines Police Department and the Latino community. He worked as part of the department’s HONRA (Hispanic Outreach Neighborhood Resource Advocate) program, which means “honor” in Spanish. It is the area of the department that handles calls from the Spanish-speaking community.
Gonzalez retired from the police department in July.
“To me, he’s the perfect person to take over,” Mackey says. “For a lot of years, I’ve always thought you could make the festival bigger, and I think Joe will do that. I think Joe has visions of making the festival grow and bringing in larger, more well-known entertainment. The basis is there for that to happen. The recognition of the event will help him do that.”
Gonzalez says he looks forward to his new role. He saw how the festival created pride in the Latino community while educating the mainstream community.
“The festival is really, really important to the community,” Gonzalez says. “It’s really important to me having been involved for so long, and I wanted to carry on the tradition JoAnn has created. I want to make sure we keep it as one of the best festivals in the state and get people to come out and be involved. I would like to see more young people get involved in the festival.”