This year, it really is the 30th Latin American Festival.
It was the 29.5 festival in 2021, and what would have been the 30th in 2020 didn’t take place at all.
“After three years we are so excited,” said Valeria Ramos Rodriguez, outreach and referral tracking coordinator for CENTRO and Festival Committee coordinator. CENTRO, a multiservice nonprofit organization in Worcester, has put on the festival since 1991.
The 30th Latin American Festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 20 at what has become its traditional spot on Worcester Common behind City Hall. Admission is free. This will be the first time the festival has been held outside since 2019.
Music, arts and crafts and food are some of the main attractions of the festival, which has come to be recognized as one of the largest events of its kind in New England, drawing thousands of people during the course of the day.
The music this year will feature a stellar lineup, including salsa star Willie Gonzalez from Puerto Rico as well as Dominican Republic merengue artist El Rey Tulile.
For the first time the festival will also feature a rap performer, Ada Betsabé, who is originally from the Dominican Republic but considers herself “a Worcesterite.”
Other musical acts include Banda Duro Swing, Alex Hernandez and Son de mi Tierra.
“We have a lot of people this year. We want to go big this year,” Ramos said.
Artisans will also be on hand, and food vendors. “Everything is almost ready,” she said during a recent interview.
“The Latin community are waiting for this for years. Everybody wants it to happen again. We want the Latin community to feel proud,” Ramos said.
According to the United States Census Bureau, people of Hispanic or Latino heritage make up 23.1% of Worcester’s population.
But the festival has always been known for its “cross-over” appeal, with people of all backgrounds invited.
“It’s for everybody that wants to come. We want to share our culture,” Ramos said.
From a relatively modest beginning when the first festival was held in 1991, a move to the Worcester Common in 1992 drew a bigger attendance and audiences grew each year. For a couple of years the festival had to be held in front of City Hall while work progressed on what would become the Worcester Common Oval. For many years the festival was successfully overseen by Carmen “Dolly” Vazquez, who retired in 2015.
The festival had continued to do well and has traditionally been held on the third Saturday in August, as is the case again this year. Juan A. Gomez, president and CEO of CENTRO, said that in 2019 the Latin American Festival drew between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals.
“It’s been amazing,” Gomez said. The only event that’s comparable in the region is the Puerto Rican Festival in Boston, but that is a three-day event, Gomez noted.
In 2020, however, what would have been the 30th festival was postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic.
Then initial plans to have the 2021 event outside behind City Hall as usual had to be changed due to the ongoing stubbornness of the Omicron COVID variant.
Instead, the festival was presented as a broadcast with local acts and livestreamed performances from Puerto Rico on WCCA TV 194.
It was a pretty close call last year, Gomez said. “It wasn’t until April or May (2021) that we decided to pull the plug. We had everything ready, but we did it virtually. It wasn’t a complete loss, but it wasn’t the same, obviously,” Gomez said.
Ramos said the festival was called “29.5” last year.
The decision to have the 30th outside behind City Hall for 2022 was made “early on,” Gomez said.
“We were already planning by December. We had made the decision.”
Gomez can sense the excitement building and is anticipating a big turnout.
“Well, if the excitement is any indication, we expect the same number as 2019,” he said.
The festival will be rain or shine, although the weather has traditionally been very good on the day.
“We play until there’s thunder,” Gomez said. “In the absence of that, we keep playing.”
The festival will represent a homecoming for Betsabé, who has been pursuing her music career in California out of necessity, “because of the music world.” She last performed in Worcester at a block party event in 2020.
She has memories of going to the Latin American Festival in Worcester each year. “I grew up going to that,” she said.
But this will be the first time Betsabé has performed at the festival and she’s mindful that she will be making the festival’s first rap appearance.
“I am the first urban artist. I’m vey excited,” she said.
Her band members for the Latin American Festival are Uziel Olivas, bass guitar, and David Vladimir Garcia, drums.
Betsabé was born in the Domincan Republic and came to Worcester when she was 3 years old. She grew up here and attended Worcester State College. She also lived in Boston for a while to pursue music before moving to California, and her musical output includes two albums and 15 singles.
“I’m a bit of a nomad,” she said while talking on the phone during a visit to the Dominican Republic. She had also recently been in South America. When she’s in Worcester, as she will be very soon, she stays at her “mother’s space.”
Her songs are delivered in what she called “Spanglish” with lyrics that can go from Spanish to English and back to Spanish again, which Betsabé said is just like how she normally talks.
“It is something when I launched my career, it’s exactly how I am with my parents,” she said.
With her “hip-hop Spanglish urban music,” she said, “I literally would sit down to write some of what I’m writing (when) I’m thinking in Spanish, and (then) it would happen in English. This is who I am. This is so authentically who I am.”
She can be talking to her mother in Spanish one minute and then a friend in English. The “back and forth” is something that’s especially experienced by first-generation people. “There’s a niche that identifies with a Latin background and being raised in America.”
It can accentuate a nomadic feeling of being “Way too American for the Dominicans and way too Dominican for the Americans,” Betsabé said.
In the song “Way Too Many” featuring Niko Eme, Betsabé and Eme find too many people who say they are friends to the end in Spanish and English but don’t mean it.
In contrast, a song such as “Lottery,” also featuring Niko Eme, moves from Spanish to English and back again in a playful manner in keeping with its upbeat, energetic approach. Eme relates that he feels “like I just won the lottery” and adds, “No ticket.” Betsabé adds later, “I got it all. No ticket.”
“Crazy,” also in Spanglish, has a joyful, romantic feel with Betsabé singing, “I will sing of your love forever.” It doesn’t really matter what people think. “They can call me crazy if they want.”
“Way Too Many,” “Lottery” and “Crazy” are secular, but Betsabé said she also performs “Gospel Christian music. I started writing my music through a spiritual awakening I had.”
There was a specific moment she had in 2014 at a music conference in Los Angeles. “I was offered a record deal,” but the producers “would rather have me make music that was empty and thoughtless in my opinion. I just decided I’m not a product. I’m an artist,” she said.
“It was like one of those moments — either I’m gonna go to become what the status quo is or I’m going the opposite way. Maybe I’ll struggle more, but I’ll be more fulfilled.”
Betsabé said, “I share very openly that I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Those that get the opportunity to know me more say ‘Wow, I never knew that’s what it means to be a Christian.’ Urban music doesn’t always lead to healthy social practice. I don’t swear, I don’t curse … It’s an amazing journey that I’m on.”
Her journeys have also taken her to South America and in Colombia she saw things that added a dimension of social justice awareness to her artistic sensibilities. She went into poverty stricken neighborhoods, Betsabé said.
All the while, “I’m looking within. I’m seeing within,” she said.
The journey continues Aug. 20.
“Now I get to perform in my hometown, which is very exciting. Full circle for me,” Betsabé said.
“Really, thanks to God for the opportunity to do this once again for our community,” said Gomez about CENTRO being able to organize the festival.
As well as this being the 30th Latin American Festival, 2022 is also the 45th year for CENTRO, which was founded in 1977.
Formerly Centro Las Americas and located at 11 Sycamore St., CENTRO is the largest minority-led, community-based, multiservice, multicultural, multilinguistic, nonprofit organization in Central Massachusetts, serving over 24,000 people each year. CENTRO’s stated primary purpose is to “assist individuals and families striving to reach self-sufficiency while promoting social responsibility, fostering cultural identity, and encouraging families to be significant contributors to the community.”
Although 60% of its clients are Latino, many families served by CENTRO are from the he Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe and other ethnicities.
CENTRO’s services include food and food pantries, community support, family support, children’s family support, adult and group foster care, and a children’s behavioral health initiative.
Gomez said that CENTRO has been able to navigate the challenges of the pandemic.
“Thankfully we had been planning properly. We had been investing in infrastructure and IT, and thanks to that, when the government announced there was going to be a shutdown, we had the IT capability, we were able to get ready.”
CENTRO was immediately able to deploy staff to work from home remotely, Gomez said, so that there was uninterrupted service from the beginning. It also put in place some very rigorous protocols to make sure staff were protected and clients not exposed.
But how the pandemic has affected the Latino community “is another story,” Gomez said.
“By every study, Latinos were affected severely by the pandemic — the largest number of deaths, the lowest number of vaccinations, the highest level of economic impact. And it’s still not over,” Gomez said. “But thankfully, mortality and morbidity rates have decreased substantially from where it was, but it’s still difficult circumstances.”
The Latin American Festival gives CENTRO great visibility and the community-at-large something to celebrate after some difficult times.
“I just feel it’s a privilege that we celebrate our heritage,” Betsabé said about the festival and sharing it with all of Worcester. “We’re an engaging community that will take you in.”
“We’re really proud of it,” said Gomez. “We’re proud of what we’re building here.”
For more information, follow @CentroWorcester on Facebook.
This year, it really is the 30th Latin American Festival.