NEWPORT, R.I. — In a city well known for its fairs and festivals, this Saturday a new cultural event will make its debut in Newport.
In the heart of the city, on the lawn of the historic Great Friends Meeting House, Festival Latino will celebrate the people, the cultures, the flavors, and the traditions of the Hispanic community on Aquidneck Island and beyond.
Rebekah Gomez, executive director of Conexión Latina Newport, which organized the event, hopes people from across the city and beyond can come together and celebrate a vital part of the community.
Mayor Xaykham Khamsyvoravong said the community embraces events like Festival Latino “because we are inspired by the cultures and stories of our neighbors, in this case our vibrant and rapidly growing Latino community.”
Here’s what you need to know about the city’s newest festival.
What is your goal for the first Festival Latino in Newport?
“The clear workforce right now in the service and tourism industries is the Hispanic families,” said Gomez.
“We want to celebrate them with the city as a whole,” Gomez said.
“We want everyone to see them as city members, as part of their community, not just the people that are working in restaurants, but as families and as people of our civic infrastructure, our neighbors.”
Why did you and others start Conexión Latina Newport?
Gomez was one of the founders who started Conexión Latina Newport in 2019, which serves to educate, inform, mobilize and advocate for all Hispanics in Newport. The nonprofit also advises and partners with social services, education and government agencies on how they can best meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking community.
How many Newport residents are Spanish-speaking or identify as Hispanic or Latino?
According to the City of Newport, an estimated 8 percent of Newport’s roughly 24,000 full-time residents identifies as Hispanic or Latino, but Gomez believes that number is substantially higher, especially considering nearly 40 percent of students in local schools are Spanish speakers, she said.
Gomez said about 85 percent of that population is Guatemalan, with the remaining 15 percent mostly from El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and elsewhere.
Conexión Latina not only works to support the Spanish-speaking population on Aquidneck Island, but to create pathways to increase access and representation throughout the city. “I don’t think people realize that they really want to be part of a community larger than themselves,” Gomez said. “I think a lot of people are very quick to judge and say, you know, ‘Well, they should learn English or they should learn this or that,’ but when you come here as an immigrant, you’re coming here so that you can survive and you can keep your family alive.”
How did the idea for Festival Latino get started?
During the pandemic, the city worked closely with Conexión Latina to help educate, communicate, and vaccinate the Hispanic community. It was when the group was working with the city’s then-fire chief on vaccination efforts that the idea for a festival was first discussed.
“He was like, ‘When are we having a Hispanic event? When are we going to have a Hispanic party?’ And we’re like, ‘Okay, you said it!’ laughed Gomez.
Already having established relationships with the police and fire departments, along with the encouragement of city leadership and other community organizations, planning for the festival in earnest started five months ago.
What can attendees expect at Festival Latino?
On Saturday, attendees can enjoy food, vendors, shopping, community resources, a voter registration booth, fun activities and more than a half-dozen bands and performance groups throughout the day.
“Convite Guatemala Rhode Island is a 50-person Indigenous Guatemalan group that dresses in very, very exotic masks and costumes, and they dance around, and it’s almost more like a parade,” Gomez said. “At the end of the day, there is an unmasking and they talk about what each person and costume represents. That’s very, very cool.”
Who would you like to see come to Festival Latino?
Gomez and other Festival Latino organizers are hoping members of the Spanish-speaking community throughout the state attend the event, which has been promoted on Middletown-based radio station WKKB-FM Latina 100.3 (one of the station’s popular on-air talent, Hector Velez, is emceeing the festival). Gomez said Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, as well as other Latino leaders from Providence, will be in attendance.
“We really want the Hispanic community to come out — anybody that’s of Hispanic origin, whether they’re frequenters of Conexión Latin or not, because we really want them to be celebrated,” said Gomez. “But we also want everybody else in the city, and even in the state, to come because we want everyone to partake in that celebration and that culture… [to] see that interweaving of the fabric of our city is just really, really important to us.”
Mayor Khamsyvoravong said he’s looking forward to “dusting off my dancing shoes, enjoying some great food, and learning more about my neighbors and their traditions.”
Festival Latino will take place — rain or shine — from noon to 6 p.m. at Great Friends Meeting House, 21 Farewell St. For more information, see the flier below or check the Festival Latino Facebook page.