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SILER CITY — Rhythmic drum beats reverberate throughout Siler City. Flags, banners, big tents and throngs of people swarm two blocks of North Chatham Avenue and East 2nd Street. Women and girls of all ages dance, their colorful dresses flowing like water around them.
And of course, there’s a long line for pupusas.
If not for COVID-19, Siler City would have celebrated and reveled in these sights, sounds and community on Sept. 12, the original date scheduled for the 2020 Hispanic Heritage Fiesta. Instead, Siler City’s Hispanic Heritage Month closed out last Thursday without its crown jewel — which even a hurricane failed to stop — and no virtual celebration could quite compare.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Ilana Dubester, the executive director of the Hispanic Liaison, the Fiesta’s primary organizer. “(We had) our virtual event online, which is totally not the same, and (it) at least (marks) the events with posts about culture, food and everything else — not to let it go by.”
From around Sept. 16 to Oct. 15, the Hispanic Liaison launched a virtual “fiesta” to celebrate Hispanic heritage on Facebook. They assigned each week a theme — like important Hispanic leaders, artists, food and dances — and published a series of informative videos, photos and posts about each. The Hispanic Liaison’s staff also attended the county commissioners’ meeting to hear Chairperson Karen Howard proclaim September as Hispanic Heritage Month on Sept. 21.
“But we don’t have the art exhibit, and we don’t have so many things that are part of it,” Dubester said. “It’s also obviously not the end of the world. It’s one year that we’re missing it. Hopefully, next year we’ll be able to come back, but it’s sad, particularly now that you know people need something to smile about and to feel supported and proud.”
The Hispanic Heritage Fiesta — in its current incarnation — is a large festival that the Hispanic Liaison, community members and other organizations throw each year to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins on Sept. 15. It’s a free, half-day event that usually takes place on a Saturday afternoon.
There, Fiesta-goers find a little bit of everything. Hispanic bands and dance groups perform, food vendors sell a variety of traditional dishes from different Latin American countries, and an area artist exhibits his or her work for the entire month in a nearby gallery. Dozens of nonprofits and local businesses, including the Hispanic Liaison, set up outreach tables and hand out information about their services. There’s also an area for kids, called Niñolandia, with games, face-painting and other activities.
“Also, a couple years ago, we started a traditional outfit parade,” Dubester said. “And we just invited community members to come in their traditional outfits and just join in on the parade, and that’s been a lot of fun. That’s always my favorite part.”
But it’s not just an event put on for the community; it’s also designed by the community. Around 80 to 100 volunteers participate both in the event and in the event’s planning, along with other community members and organizations. The whole planning process usually begins in May.
“We have much more of an equal partnership with community members working on Fiesta,” Dubester said. “And that’s kind of the whole point anyway — to bring out local talents and help foment local leadership and ownership of the event and really reflect the community that we are.”
And that’s why its absence this year devastated many, including Fiesta volunteer Elena C. Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, 61, has been volunteering at the Liaison for about 20 years. A certified chef both here and in Mexico, she’s the organization’s cook — both as a volunteer and for pay. She also came up with and oversees the Fiesta’s traditional outfit parade, where she wears her own traditional Chiapaneca dress from Chiapas, Mexico.
“(It’s) really pretty sad that it couldn’t be done this year,” said Gonzalez. “When we came to this country, we came from many festival traditions and patron saint festivals. So since we’re in this country, having the opportunity to go out and see our community and everything is like reliving a little piece of our land here.”
Likewise, volunteer Ana Huezo, 40, treasures the Fiesta as a time where everyone can share and celebrate their distinct cultures.
“It is the only day that everyone’s culture is shared,” she said.
Originally from El Salvador, she began volunteering with the Liaison two or three years ago. Skilled in traditional paper cutting, Huezo created “a factory of paper cutting” to decorate a past Fiesta, according to Dubester, and she also handmade hammocks as a prize people could win from the Liaison’s fundraising raffle.
“(The Fiesta reflects) the unity of the community,” she said, adding, “We agree and all that despite the fact that we are not from the same country. There is union. There is union and therefore mutual help.”
Non-Hispanic residents also say the Fiesta’s important to Chatham as a bridge of understanding between the county’s Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities.
Siler City Mayor John Grimes has been attending the Fiesta since it first started with his family. His daughter-in-law is Hispanic, and he always enjoyed watching his two grandchildren dance and participate.
“I think that (the Fiesta) opens our citizens to be more appreciative of the Hispanic culture,” he said.
Chatham County Commissioner Howard began attending the Fiesta with her children about five years ago and gave the welcoming speech in 2018. Before attending a Fiesta, she’d never been to any Latin American country and said she used to picture the cultures of various Latin American countries as “one amorphous blob without a real appreciation for the differences in the culture.”
Siler City’s Fiesta changed all that, she said, by “open(ing) a door” for her and making her aware of the diversity within Hispanic cultures — which is why she thinks cultural celebrations like the Fiesta are so important to the community.
“I think that what happened to me when I went there is probably what happens to a lot of people,” she said, adding, “It feels like a welcoming, like, ‘Here, step into our culture and see what we do and see how we do it, and we’re going to gift you with this experience of our food and our music and our the sounds and smells and tastes of our community.’”
It’s a treat for everyone, Hispanic or non-Hispanic, she said.
“As a person of color, and particularly as an immigrant myself, part of belonging is having others know who you are and the nuance of who you are,” she said. “And so, I think it’s an opportunity for them to showcase their own beautiful, rich, diverse cultures in a proud and meaningful way.”
But thanks to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Gonzalez said it’s possible that another year will pass in Siler City without a Fiesta to honor Hispanic cultures.
After all, she said, there’s really no other way to celebrate Hispanic heritage and culture.
“Presence is the essence,” she said. “God willing, next year they may make us wear masks, but maybe we will celebrate it. I hope we will be able to celebrate the Fiesta again.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
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