VALHALLA, N.Y. – The rhythms of Latin music and savory aromas of grilled meats enveloped thousands of visitors to the Kensico Dam Plaza on Sunday as they celebrated the diverse culture of Hispanics in Westchester County with music, food, dance and shopping.
“Everything here is so much fun,” said Maria Santiago of Yonkers, as she took a break from an invigorating round of Zumba dancing. “There are not too many Hispanic heritage events where you can see the different cultures from the many countries, from the dances to the excellent but different foods, in one place.”
Lucy Pereda and Maria Areila, visitors from Colombia, said they decided to stop by on the spur of the moment after hearing about the event on a local television program.
“We thought it would be fun to come to shop and eat,” Pereda said.
With a steady flow of arrivals throughout the afternoon, the event was expected to match the almost 15,000 visitors of past years, said Martha Lopez, event coordinator for the Hispanic Heritage Day Festival.
“This is the day for 30 years that the Latin community gets together to say, 'We’re here, we want to help and support each other and share and celebrate our culture and heritage,' ” Lopez added.
Even though there was a noticeable increase in the number of participants at the event – from nonprofit community support agencies to food and product vendors – several longtime visitors to the annual event commented on the lack of children’s activities this year.
“We’ve been coming here for almost 11 years, and for the first time, there is almost nothing for the children. Only face painting. There used to be an entire area for them to do activities and have fun,” said Margarita Vicente of Mount Vernon, who attended with her three children, husband, cousin and nieces.
Lopez said cuts in governmental support and corporate donations due to tough economic times resulted in the elimination of the children’s area this year.
“Our funding has been cut over the past few years, so we do have to do more with less. But we’re not giving up and hope to have the children’s tent back next year,” she said.
Over the past two years, the event has continued despite the elimination of the county’s Office of Hispanic Affairs, which used to organize it, due to cutbacks that affected several county programs, said Zoé Colón, executive director of the Hispanic Resource Center in Mamaroneck.
Since then, the festival has been hosted by an alliance of five Westchester Latin community organizations – El Centro Hispano Inc., Westchester Hispanic Coalition, Neighbors Link, United Community Center and the Hispanic Resource Center.
“We made sure the legacy would not die. This is the largest festival in Valhalla and a wonderful day for people to come together and have fun,” Colón said.
Miguel Cossio of New Rochelle, who is a teaching artist with ArtsWestchester and originally from Mexico, was busy all afternoon filling the gap for children and some adults by face painting for pay-as-you-can donations.
“When funding is cut, the situation demands that you give back to your community,” Cossio said of donating his time and talent to make children happy.
But for most attendees, the strains of the easily recognized “Guantanamera” song and sights and smells of the available foods from their home countries was sufficient to make them feel at home.
“This is what you enjoy back home in the Dominican Republic,” said Cicilio Peña of Yonkers, pointing to two plates laden with roast pork, rice with beans, and macaroni salad being held by his wife, Serafina Peña.
Others enjoyed refreshing drinks made from tamarind and hibiscus flowers and reputed to stave off the heat. For Alberto Miceli of White Plains, the biggest decision of the day was choosing from the selection of exotic ice-cream flavors that included guava, rice pudding, tamarind and chili. “Coconut,” he said. “Yes, that will be it.”