Latino Fest returns early this year

WASHINGTON — The eighth annual Latino Festival returns to the Washington square on Saturday. While the event has previously been held during Hispanic Heritage month from mid-September to October, organizers say they moved the timeline up this year.

Latinos for Washington President and Co-founder Sonia Leyva said the local group didn’t want to compete with the schedules of other festivals around the state.

“Last weekend we had our festival the same weekend as the Des Moines Latino Festival, so that made it a little bit difficult to get a few performers we wanted,” she said. “It’s hard when you're a small town competing with the capital … so we just wanted a different time, but also close enough to Hispanic Heritage Month.”

Festivities will also run later than in years past. Leyva said vendors would set up shop by 11 a.m. Saturday, but the opening ceremony would not come until 1:30 p.m. After that, festivities will run into the night, concluding at 10 p.m.

“We are just kind of trying to figure out the time frame and when people can come,” she said. “Some people work on Saturday, so many people weren’t able to come until later on in the evening … we’re making it a little bit longer so people can come and enjoy.”

This year’s event features a variety of programming, including Lucha Libre, music, dancing, bounce houses, and — for the first time since the pandemic stared — piñatas.

“We just want it to be a great cultural experience for everyone,” Leyva said. “It’s a great chance to share our culture, with not only non-Latinos, but also for the Latino youth in the community, because many don’t get to go back to their home countries often. It’s nice to have a place where you can come, and it feels like back home.”

Leyva said she was excited.

"It’s going to be fun,“ she said. ”I’m very stoked. When you plan something for so many months, you just want it to happen and be here, and enjoy the performers, enjoy the company, enjoy the food.“

For many, the festival represents a different way to be part of the community.

“My kids have never been to Mexico, so it feels great that I can share that with my children, but also with my community,” Leyva said. “You can’t explain certain things to them, but when they see it and they live it, then they understand a little bit more of who you are, where you come from … it’s so important to me that everyone has an opportunity to be seen, be visible, to feel like they belong.”

Those kinds of opportunities are especially rare in Iowa, a state that is 90.1% white, according to the most recent census estimates.

“We don’t get it all the time,” Leyva said. “We can’t just go to a dance to listen to music … big cities have markets you can go to and feel like you’re in Mexico, but we just don’t have that here. It feels that much more special.”

The festival takes extensive planning, and Leyva said she was grateful for the donors who made it possible.