ATLANTIC CITY — Hundreds of people came to Bader Field on Saturday to celebrate the city’s Latino Festival after it was canceled last year due to COVID-19.
Flags from countries such as Mexico, Columbia and Puerto Rico waved in the wind as festival goers indulged in traditional foods, danced and shopped from small business vendors and Latino artists.
“It’s gratifying to see it all come together,” said Bert Lopez, festival director and president of the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County.
The festival was an annual event in the 1990s and early 2000s, but took a decadelong hiatus before returning two years ago. The event in 2019 garnered a crowd of more than 7,000 people.
“When it came back in 2019, our expectations were blown out of the water with the amount of people who came,” Lopez said. “So for 2021, we’re expecting a lot of joy and certainly excitement about celebrating our Hispanic heritage.”
For Lopez, celebrating the diversity of Latin America and helping people reconnect with their culture are key elements of the festival.
“Part of the beauty of the festival is that we highlight the different aspects of Latin America. We have mariachi from Mexico, tropical music from Colombia, merengue from the Dominican Republic, so it’s vastly diverse,” Lopez said. “Additionally, helping kids that may have grown up here in the states to make that connection is so vital. We want them to take pride in their heritage. We want to raise awareness throughout the community that we unite under the same language and celebrate our differences as Latinos.”
Festivalgoers Maggie Rosa and Ivy Sanders were visiting Atlantic City from Connecticut when they heard about the festival.
“We thought we’d come out and show our support,” said Rosa, who wore a blue T-shirt with a Puerto Rican flag on the front.
Rosa and Sanders said the best part about the festival was the abundance of social services and resources that were present. Organizations at the event included Atlantic City government, Stockton University, the League of Women Voters as well as legal, health care and housing services.
“Education is really key, and to have all of these resources out here for people to access, that’s huge,” Rosa said. “Bringing the resources right to the people that may not know about them, it’s amazing.”
Jessica Castiblanco took a break from running her booth, where she was selling griddles, to walk around and check out the festival.
“It’s beautiful weather, amazing vendors and food, it’s a good time,” Castiblanco said. “The festival is a great opportunity to check out these different businesses that you may not have known about before, and being able to support them is always nice.”
Roxana Perez-Nieves, one of the event’s organizers, said the festival brings back a lot of good memories.
“This is very nostalgic for me. I used to come to the festival every year as a child,” Perez-Nieves said. “So being out here and seeing the community come and support all of the vendors and the Latino community, it’s just amazing. This is a place where I feel like I can be my true self.”
Perez-Nieves, along with Jessica Grullon and Arleen Gonzalez, who are all faculty members at Stockton, embraced one another as they talked about the pride they feel being Latina.
“I’m from Puerto Rico, Jessica is Dominican and Roxana is Mexican, but we are all united under that one banner, we are Latinas first,” Gonzalez said. “I can relate to every woman in Latin American because we share a rich history.”
Grullon said for her, the festival is meant to honor the history of the Latino community.
“It’s a celebration of who we are,” Grullon said. “It’s an opportunity for us to get together and celebrate our past, present and future.”
The event also raises money for scholarships, Gonzalez said.
“Our (the Hispanic Association) purpose is to serve our Hispanic community,” Gonzalez said. “And a way we do that is to support scholarships for Hispanic students to ensure that they are able to afford a college degrees, and this (the festival) is one of our main fundraisers towards that goal.”
Gonzalez said the festival is especially important after the pandemic took a heavy toll on the Hispanic community.
“We were hit really hard with COVID,” Gonzalez said. “To be able to bring a little bit of lightness and joy to our community, and the community at large, after everything we’ve been through, it’s amazing.”
Grullon said AtlantiCare would be on site later in the afternoon to administer free COVID-19 vaccines.
“This is a true community event,” Lopez said. “It’s not just a Latino event, we take pride in the fact that this is a community event.”
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