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The Sounds and Sights of Iowa's Latino Heritage Festival 2021

Kassidy Arena
Performers paraded the flags of Latino countries at the opening of Iowa's Latino Heritage Festival on Saturday.

Iowa's Latino Heritage Festival made a comeback this past weekend after 2020's was canceled because of the pandemic.

The event celebrated the many aspects of Latino cultures represented in the state. Attendees could enjoy live music, food and other activities. There were so many performers, exhibitors and artists at the festival, there was almost never a quiet moment.

The music could be heard throughout downtown Des Moines before attendees even walked up to the entry point of the festival. They were immediately presented with booths representing a myriad of Latino culture, ranging from salsa dance lessons to taco stands to live performances.

Credit Kassidy Arena
Dancers showed off their costumes before their performance at Iowa's Latino Heritage Festival.

Chloe Bodenhamer stopped at the entrance for some giveaway soccer balls to hand to her three children. They were already holding paper kite projects they made at the library.

"I wanted to take my kids out and see a little bit of a cultural experience and show them the Latin culture," she said. "Now we're going to walk around and see if we can find some food."

Bodenhamer didn't have any trouble doing just that. Food stands spread from one end of the festival grounds along downtown Des Moines' Western Gateway Park to the other end.

Mirian Quintero cooked pupusas at her stand with Las Palmas restaurant. She answered people's questions over the loud sizzle of the grill: what were those pancake-looking foods that smelled so good?

She answered in their questions in English, but when going into more details about the dish, she switched to Spanish.

"It's our traditional dish in El Salvador and it's very well-known and the whole world loves them," Quintero said with a smile, continuing to flip the pupusas to cook evenly.

Across the street, heavy knives hit cutting boards and they sliced through fruit at a taqueria booth.

Raudel Alvarez said he was at his booth, "For the people and for ourselves, but mainly, I don't know...just for the community. Trying to give a brighter look," he said. He's 28, and been working at his family's restaurant, Taqueria 3 Hermanos, since he was 12. He'll take it over once his dad retires.

Booths from sponsors of the festival mixed in with the food vendors. According to festival executive director Joe Gonzalez, 2021 had the most sponsors, with 13 new ones signed up to support the festival and hand out scholarships to Latino students. (23 students received a $1000 scholarship.)

Amparo Ramus works with one of the first-time sponsors of the festival, Academy Roofing. She's from Panama and said she's glad to be a part of Latino Heritage Month in a new way.

"We're very proud and happy that we joined this," she said.

As attendees ventured deeper into the festival, the music got louder and the exhibitors started to focus on non-food-related culture. Javier Alvarez's chants rung out above the live music. He was demonstrating ancestral Ecuadorian medicinal cleansings.

Credit Kassidy Arena
Javier Alvarez stands in front of the altar for his performances of ancestral medicinal customs of Ecuador. He offered attendees healings in the traditional Ecuadorian practice.

"Concentrate," he told a man with a goatee. The man's eyes were closed. Alvarez spritzed him with essential oils, continuing his chants. For the finale of the demonstration, he blew into a conch shell three times. The man opened his eyes sleepily.

"How do you feel?" Alvarez asked him. The man smiled, his eyelids heavy, and replied softly: "Good."

After the man walked away, Alvarez explained what he was doing.

"I am here because today is the Latino Festival and I am Latino. I’m Ecuadorian. And I’m doing a traditional Ecuadorian demonstration that has to do with the traditional cross, or compass (chacana), that represents the four cardinal points and elements, and ancestral medicine," he said in Spanish.

To Alvarez's right, stood the Capoeira booth. It's an Afro-Brazilian art form and was used during the time of slavery. It's now considered one of Brazil's national sports. It combines music with martial arts and dance.

Along with the performing arts, which included dancers in traditional Mexican dresses, Jose Marentes, was live painting.

"I also have hidden within it images of Des Moines. I got the Des Moines logo, the three bridges, I got that in there 515...There's little elements here within the painting that I'm going to bring alive today," he said.

So much more went into the performances, exhibits and activities at Iowa's 2021 Latino Heritage Festival over the weekend that were not mentioned here. The festival is expected to be held again in 2022.