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Cultural groups keep Latino heart beating in Utah County

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About 50 people showed up in 2001 to Utah County's first Festival Latinoamericano, an annual celebration of Latin American history, culture, art and traditions.

An estimated 10,000-15,000 attended this year's three-day event, according to Norma Juarez, the festival's executive director.

"It's a great opportunity for us to plant seeds in the younger generation in order to keep our traditions alive," Juarez said in an email. "It is also a platform to bring our community together. We are here to build bridges between community members and help our community grow."

The Latino arts community in Utah County has grown over time, with various events and groups helping to keep Latin American culture alive in the area.

Festival Latinoamericano offers latin dancing, culture 08

Catrinas Mexican Snacks and Catering prepare food for festival attendees on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Provo. (Michael Schnell, special to the Daily Herald).

Festival Latinoamericano

A committee of men and women dedicated to community service started Festival Latinoamericano as they noticed "a growing number of Hispanic families moving into Utah and very little community resources available to help," according to Juarez.

"Along with the celebration, we also provide an opportunity for all in the community to learn and understand the Latino culture," Juarez said. "We believe in building our community up by learning, and embracing, our differences."

The festival, which is run by volunteers, takes place each year on Labor Day weekend because many Latin American countries celebrate their independence in September.

The family-oriented event — which features traditional Latino food, performances and clothing — aims to create a safe environment for all community members and multiple generations of Latinos to "immerse themselves in the Latin culture using their five senses."

"The older generations like to reminisce about their upbringing and how the music, food and dances transport them back to those days," Juarez said. "The younger generation becomes excited to learn about their ancestors' traditions through the music, food and dance as well. Family bonds are tightened as family members share their experiences with each other."

Viva El Folklore

Members of Viva El Folklore stand in native dress. The group performs cultural dances from a variety of countries. 

Viva El Folklore

Local Latino cultural dance group Viva El Folklore began in 2005 at the request of the Mexican consulate, according to Tony Acosta, who manages the ensemble's publicity.

"They wanted to bring a youth group to one of their Mexican Independence Day celebrations and they asked our director, Raquel, to help them organize it," Acosta said in an email. "She quickly did so and the group was so well received that other students immediately started inquiring about joining the group, and hence Viva El Folklore was born."

Hundreds of students have participated in the group, which has performed at Disney World, Disneyland, the Marriott Center in Provo and during Real Salt Lake halftime at Rio Tinto Stadium.

"We work really hard to spread our culture and teach kids that they can be proud of their Latin heritage and embrace it fully," Acosta said. "We participate in dozens of local events annually free of charge in order to help spread our message that #cultureiscool. We feel honored to represent so many cultures within our community."

Acosta said Viva El Folklore aims to "cultivate the love of culture in the youth" and "remind our audiences of their homelands."

"We thrive off of experiences like the one our director had a few years ago," Acosta said. "We performed a dance from Guatemala and after our show a woman came up to her and said with tears in her eyes, 'Thank you for taking me back to my country for a few minutes since I cannot travel back.' Or the Mexican man who said he got goosebumps every time he heard our music. That's what we live for!"

Los Hermanos de los Andes

The Andean folk music group Los Hermanos de los Andes performs in this undated photo. 

Los Hermanos de los Andes

Edgar Zurita, of Bolivia, first developed a passion for Andean folk music when he was 14 years old and has since dedicated his life to promoting Latino culture through a variety of events and groups, including Los Hermanos de los Andes.

"Serving the community, to me, is very important, and I dedicate a lot of my time in the service of our community," Zurita said. "I love it, and I feel a big debt to our community, so I'm repaying it as much as I can."

The Utah County-based Andean folk music ensemble formed from a group of Brigham Young University engineering students in 1989 and has included members from many countries including Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and Mexico.

"I think it is a way of showcasing the beauty of this type of music. It's so beautiful, it's so haunting and we love it," Zurita said. "And because we love it, we play it, and we want to share that with our community. We want to share it with people that maybe have not had an opportunity to enjoy this type of music."

Over the past 30 years, Los Hermanos de los Andes has performed throughout the state, nation and globe from the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii to Mexico, Central America and China.

"Music is a beautiful thing. It's very influential. It's a very powerful tool that we use to heal people," Zurita said. "And that healing, it's also for us, the musicians. We find refuge in music when we need any type of healing, especially if we're stressed or we're worried or anything like that, the music is an outlet for us to do what we love and at the same time find peace."

Mariachi America de Utah

The members of Mariachi America de Utah pose for a photo in July 2019. 

Mariachi America de Utah

A trio of Utah college students from Mexico City who got together in 1994 to play Mexican music eventually grew into a full mariachi band to become Utah Valley-based group Mariachi America de Utah, according to founder Mario Escobar.

"It's one of the greatest things that's happened to me because I discovered that that's what I really like doing, but I also notice that it makes people happy," Escobar said. "Sometimes people cry because it brings them memories — good, bad memories, who knows — and I think that the most exciting and the joy comes from seeing other people enjoy and us sharing our talents with them."

The group performs at birthday parties, weddings, quinceañeras and "any type of celebration where people want to be happy," Escobar said.

"We get paid, but it's not as much as the pay that makes us feel complete, it's actually the satisfaction of bringing something we really love to do," Escobar said. "We get paid to do what we love, so that is a huge, huge, huge benefit."

Keeping culture alive

Acosta said continuing Latin American traditions through groups like Viva El Folklore is "massively important because if we don't embrace our roots, they get lost over time."

"If we don't appreciate where we came from, we won't know where to go," Acosta said. "We need to continue to spread the joy and color of our Latin culture, so that others may learn about it and gain a greater appreciation for it as well."

Keeping these traditions alive in Utah County is also important for immigrants from Latin America and allowing their children born in the United States to learn the culture as well, according to Escobar.

"Here, we don't get the chance to go to our countries," Escobar said. "Specifically Mexico, a lot of people can't go back for different reasons, so the fact that we're bringing this music, it makes them happy."

Zurita said as the Latino arts community has grown to include more festivals and activities around the state, many youths "are identifying themselves with the richness, the beauty of their heritage, their music, their dances."

"It's very, very nice to see the Hispanic community be proud of something that maybe in the past they were a little bit ashamed of because it was different and because maybe it was not very appreciated 100%, the beauty of it, and now it's out there," Zurita said. "It's very filling. I love it. I'm just excited to see how this has impacted our community."

Festival Latinoamericano's organizers have grown through their volunteer work "to rely on each other and work hard together to bring the event to where it is today," according to Juarez.

"We do it because we love what the festival stands for and seeing families come out multiple days and stay for hours," Juarez said. "This is what brings us satisfaction, seeing the joy in others."

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