From the Archives: Hispanic Heritage and the Birth of Latino Fest

 Photo by Emily Salguero

Photo by Emily Salguero

In the fall of 2010, I began spending every Friday afternoon at the Pinewood Estates North branch of the Athens Library. I followed Aida Quinones, the branch director, as she helped a group of elementary school students discover their Hispanic heritage. The story I produced, in addition to being a sort of documentary work, helped publicize the inaugural Latino Fest, which sees its sixth incarnation on October 10, 2015. Sadly, the photos and video I captured during that time were lost due to my poor back-up routine of desktop and hard drive. All that's left is this story, which is only available here on my blog now. Flagpole Magazine, the original publisher of the piece, was hacked a year or so after this story ran, erasing much of the backlog of content. Oh well. But with Latino Fest coming up soon, I thought it as good a time as any to revisit Aida's contribution to our city, give an introduction to the Pinewood neighborhood, and get the backstory

Air brakes exhale, and the mechanical wheeze floats through the conifers outside the Pinewood Community Learning Center and Library. County school buses are navigating the heavily speed-bumped lanes of Pinewood Estates North, a mobile home park off Hwy. 29, dropping off backpack-laden children and breaking hours of silence with their diesel-powered roar.

“They’re here,” says Aida Quiñones-Saez, the library’s branch manager, as the rumble of bus engines reverberates inside the library’s walls. In a moment, those bus riders will burst backpack-free through the library’s doors.

It’s just before 3 p.m. on an October Friday afternoon, and Quiñones-Saez just transformed the library’s tutoring and media room into a makeshift dance studio. Monday through Thursday, students and tutors cover the room’s plastic fold-up tables with fraction homework and grammar worksheets. On Fridays, after a long, studious week, Quiñones-Saez concedes a free day, prompting most of the children to surf MySpace pages and play flash games on websites like Funbrain and Cartoon Network.

But not all of the library’s charges rush the computer screens. In place of online arcade games, two groups of children—one male, one female, both elementary age—have opted to spend these free afternoons learning bailes, or traditional Mexican dances, with the goal of performing folkloric steps at the first annual Latino Fest taking place this Sunday just outside the library in the adjacent Pinewood Estates North community garden.

Dubbed by organizers a celebration of Latino contributions to the music, performance and culinary arts scenes in Athens, the Pinewood garden party will cap a weekend of festivities that kicks off with dueling bills of music Friday night at Go Bar and Ciné. Sunday’s lineup emphasizes the artistic talents of many Pinewood residents—including bands, speakers and dancers—as well as homemade enchiladas and pozole made with ingredients sourced from the community garden.

Bailedores de Coile adds a modern alternative to the library’s young traditional dancers. These Coile Middle School students will perform the popular Bachata, an up-tempo but romantic dance from the Dominican Republic, and the Duranguense, a Mexican-style polka made popular by bands in Chicago.

Many Latino and Hispanic activists, organizers and arts promoters have long dreamed of an outdoor, city-wide Latino Fest, says Humberto Mendoza, who is an event coordinator and musical performer, but it wasn’t until recently that these elements decided to “put their efforts together.” He says Latino Fest began as a way to raise money for the Pinewood Community Garden planted by residents last spring, but the event quickly outgrew mere fundraiser status.

“Our goal is to share the culture of this immigrant community,” Mendoza says. “They’re doing music and so much more. It’s a chance to celebrate heritage… and bring the entire community together in one place.”

Latino Fest is also a chance to break some of the bad press currently pestering the Latino community. Recent country-wide immigration debates and local uproar over undocumented university students receiving in-state tuition only add to negative Mexican images in the U.S. media, says Roberta Fernandez, an independent scholar of Latin America and Latino culture. She points out that other parts of the world cherish the culture and its cinematic and musical exports. While Latino Fest could be interpreted as a sermon to the choir, she calls such celebrations “very vital” to the community’s well-being.

Mendoza, an immigrant rights activist with Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens, adds that it’s not just hard times for immigrants but for the entire country. “It’s when times are hardest that it’s most important to celebrate and work things out,” Mendoza says.

Quiñones-Saez admits that as an instructor, Hispanic Heritage Month, which began on Sept. 16, “always sneaks up on you” when planning lessons, so over the summer she proactively combed the library’s shelves and found an A/V package called “Danza de los Viejitos” (The Dance of the Old Men), a famous pre-Columbian dance originating in the Mexican province of Michoacán.

Los Viejitos’ exact historical meaning is uncertain, but one prominent explanation emerged from several inquiries. Over the centuries, the P’urhépecha natives, the indigenous Michoacáns who created the dance, used the baile to mock the various invaders, both native and European, who dared to conquer them. Central to a Los Viejitos performance are male dancers in campesino dress whose youthful faces are hidden behind clay masks. Bent over wooden canes, the dancers mosey through the audience faking an aged frailty only to burst into vigorous, comical dance fits when the invaders, supposedly, aren’t paying attention.

Hoping to spark an interest in a heritage recital, Quiñones-Saez played a video clip of los Viejitos for some boys, and to the librarian’s surprise, an ensemble of interpreters quickly formed. The masks’ goofy anonymity attracted the crew, as well as the chance to clown around publicly without recourse–it’s not every day they can bonk their neighbors over the head with a bamboo cane and get away with it.

The boys’ newfound interest in dance prompted a group of girls to create their own group, dubbed Las Estrellitas. They quickly took up a baile regional they’ve self-titled “Rebozo,” a graceful, measured and smooth performance compared to the foolish rowdiness of los Viejitos. The girls drape themselves in a robozo, a lengthy, wide shoulder wrap used historically by native women to strap infants to their backs as they worked in the fields. Las Estrellitas’ garments are modeled after traditional dress and are hand-sewn by volunteers including Quiñones-Saez’s mother.

Before accepting the librarian post last spring, Quiñones-Saez, a longtime migrant education specialist in the Athens area, worked as a home visitor for Early Head Start. That position regularly brought her to the Pinewood community, so she was quite familiar with the social makeup of this largely Hispanic neighborhood.

“I came in thinking I was going to be immersed in Spanish,” she says, but instead she discovered first-generation Hispanic Americans, an increasing demographic in the county’s school halls, split between a hyper-American weekday and a Spanish-speaking home life. It seemed English was beating out Spanish. “It was a real eye-opener.”

She was, at first, concerned about the children’s knowledge of their roots, but her fears quickly dissipated. On top of school, latchkey afternoons and parents working around the clock, Quiñones-Saez’s students pull off a cross-cultural high wire act. She realized the children are enamored with their parents’ traditions; they’re just unsure where the desire comes from.

“For them, the U.S. is their place,” she says. “but they have this other thing, and they struggle with that. It’s in there; you just have to pull it out.”

Clara Londono, the Family Engagement Specialist at J.J. Harris Elementary, echoes Quinones-Saez’s thoughts, adding that these students are transcending a “difficult situation.” There aren’t many opportunities for Pinewood youths to see their cultural forms elevated outside their neighborhood. They’re grabbing what’s “immediate to them” and blending into U.S. culture, but they still crave opportunities to say, “That’s Mexican. I’m Mexican.”

The library’s after-school cultural instruction only enhances the children’s daily lessons at J.J. Harris Elementary and Coile Middle School. During one afternoon at the Pinewood library, Flagpole received, without prodding, a well-versed lecture on the intricacies of El Dia de los Muertes from a U.S.-born J.J. Harris student. She said she’d studied the traditions in Spanish class and told this reporter that while Halloween is cool and all, it doesn’t quite stand up to the Mexican holiday: “You get to really feel the spirits of your dead family.”

Such an otherworldly connection irked that student’s older sister, a 12-year-old Mexican native who spoke only Spanish until the age of six. As she’s learned English over the past six years, she’s noticed her grasp on Spanish loosen. But she’s okay with that; she prefers English.

Latino Fest in Pinewood Estates North marks a new look for the neighborhood’s public face, highlighted by the library’s continued growth as a cultural and social hub. Once a “wild” place, in Menodoza’s opinion, marred by an escalation of gang activity early last decade, the neighborhood has matured. Recent projects like the community garden and Latino Fest have improved relationships between tenants and landlords. When organizers approached Pinewood staff about setting up the festival, they brought along a basket of produce from the garden and were met with smiles and approvals. Quiñones-Saez adds that her students’ contributions to Latino Fest are “injections of positivity” for their emerging identities: “They’ll see it’s good to be Hispanic, and it’s good for people to recognize it and see it.”