Arriba Centroamerica

by by Jesse Strecker

Sunday, August 20. Providence’s Festival Centroamericano is understandably loud. With camera in hand, we’ve joined a celebratory throng at Roger Williams Park for the 188th anniversary of Guatemala’s, Honduras’s, Costa Rica’s, El Salvador’s, and Nicaragua’s joint declarations of independence. And while men are draped in the flags of each of these countries, it’s easiest to see the presence of New England’s largest Guatemalan community out in full force this weekend to kick off Rhode Island’s celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

An announcer booms, “Arriba Centroamérica!” The crowd goes wild. “¿¡Quién de ustedes es de Guatemala?!”

Jonathan Rosales and Kayla Perez are. This year’s Mr. and Miss Guatemala Providence, the pair parades through the crowd, followed by a pack of super-fresh teens.

“I wanted to join the competition because I wasn’t born in Guatemala, but I still wanted to participate in my culture,” Perez says, beaming.

In their teens, Perez and Rosales were crowned after coming out on top in modeling, traditional punta dancing, a bathing suit contest, and answering questions about how they would help their community.

“For the question part, mine was about how to keep kids in school. I said they need individual attention, whether it’s in art or math,” says Rosales.

“My question was about teen pregnancy,” Perez says with a head-tilt and a grin. “I said, ‘Stopping it should start at home. Parents should talk to their kids to help prevent it.’”

Providence’s festival is part of a nationwide week of festivities. The first Festival Centroamericano was held in 1968, under the Johnson Administration, and was extended in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan to span September 15 to October 15.

This year, the festival’s theme is “Embracing the Fierce Urgency of Now!” and seeks to “recognize the strength and hard work of Hispanic Americans,” according to the federal project’s website.

At Tuesday’s opening event—the unveiling of Ecuadorian artist Augustin Patiño’s mural at the Plaza de Las Artes in Providence’s Elmwood neighborhood—Mayor David Cicilinne’s remarks praised Rhode Island’s Latinos for bringing artistic vibrancy to the city.

Meanwhile, however, there was an absence of commentary at the event about Rhode Island’s recently enacted, uniquely virulent immigration laws. The city’s signature orange Arial at the bottom of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Rhode Island’s website specifies that the festivities seek to honor only the “art, history and culture of Latinos”—a mission that precludes those posting to the event calendar from addressing controversial policy that’s been tearing the community apart.

Governor Donald Carcierri’s May 2008 Executive Order demanded that local law enforcement work with the federal immigration agency to detain undocumented immigrants by asking the residency status of any individual. A mere two months after the enactment, the agency raided six Rhode Island courthouses, detaining 31 custodial workers. After being moved from undisclosed jail to undisclosed jail, the fate of many of these people remains unknown.

That sense of anxiety hung thinly in the air at Sunday’s festival. As one festival goer who wished to remain anonymous says, “Fortunately, I’ve never dealt much with the police, but we know a lot of our people are dealing with issues of discrimination and intimidation.”

Despite disquiet over Rhode Island’s immigration policies, the Festival Centroamericano offers a valuable setting for the state’s diverse Latinos to express pride and solidarity. The weeks to come will feature compelling displays of latinidad.

Children and adults will learn how to make piñatas, Spanish-language movies will screen, art will be on display, and people will march to commemorate the ineffaceable ‘Black Jesus’ that an Angolan slave painted on the wall of his plantation hut in Peru.

But for Christian Izaguirre, a second-generation Honduran American, the celebration has an even more basic draw: “My favorite thing about the festival is just seeing everybody out here, representing themselves and their countries.”