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At Hispanic festivals, workplace, traditions pass from one generation to next

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 29, 2009 - With Latin music blaring in the background, the master of ceremonies called out to the audience: "Puerto Ricans, where are you? Co-lom-bi-ans. Mexicans, let's hear you."

On this sizzling Saturday afternoon, a crowd gathered in the shade beneath a canopy where several couples were having a dance-off. The emcee asked for cheers based on each contestant's country of origin.

"We've got a little of everyone here," he announced.

The two-day Fiesta in Florissant, held at a sprawling park in this Hispanic enclave, drew hundreds of people despite the scorching heat. The festival is one of three annual events coordinated by the nonprofit group Hispanic Festival, Inc.

For many Hispanics living in St. Louis, these cultural festivals are a place for people of different nationalities to mix.

Joel Jennings, an assistant professor at St. Louis University who researches the ways in which Hispanic residents have developed a sense of membership within a broader community, said that because St. Louis has never had an ethnic neighborhood known as a barrio, festivals can serve an important role in bringing a scattered population together.

For a weekend, at least, "there's a shared politics that reaches beyond the usual boundaries that divide people -- legal status, country of origin and class status," said Jennings, who teaches in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. "It contributes in some small way to a recognition that there's a shared set of interests and a richness of culture."

Because they are open to the general public, these festivals also contribute to the notion that Hispanics are part of a broader St. Louis community, Jennings added. (To further this sense of integration, it's also important that Hispanic groups have a presence at public events such as school board and city council meetings, he added.)

Ann Rynearson, senior vice president for culture and community at International Institute St. Louis, said events that celebrate cultural contributions are particularly important these days "given the negative feeling from a certain part of the population toward Hispanics."

Rynearson, who oversees the Festival of Nations event held each summer in Tower Grove Park, said her event -- like the Hispanic Festival -- includes representatives from nearly every Latin America country. Dance troupes perform a mixture of contemporary and traditional routines, and it's often a negotiation among generations that have different performance preferences, Rynearson said.

Which points to another reason festivals are an important part of the fabric of Hispanic life: They are a time to pass traditions from one generation (often born in Latin America) to the next (increasingly born in the United States).

The Fiesta in Florissant is geared toward families, and the festival's president, Haniny Hillberg, has long seen the event as a chance to expose her daughter, American-born Elisa Bender, to Latin American culture. 

"I always wanted her to learn about her heritage, and one way was by exposing her to our festivals so she could see and appreciate the customs," Hillberg said. "I wanted her to see the differences between me and Peruvians and Chileans, but to see that we all have one thing in common -- our language."

The motivations of parents and the responses from their children tell a lot about what it's like to be a Hispanic family in St. Louis. Here's a look at that dynamic, told through the eyes of several people who attended the Fiesta in Florissant.

Knowing their roots

Hillberg, an energetic woman who makes her presence felt at the festival, moved to the United States from Bolivia when she was 16. She met her husband in Minnesota and moved to St. Louis, where the couple raised their children.

About once a year, Hillberg travels back to Bolivia -- and she has taken Bender on some of the trips. Hillberg said she made an effort to expose her daughter to different aspects of Bolivian culture. Bender, who grew up in Florissant, dutifully took part in a Bolivian dance troupe, watched her mom and aunt cook traditional cuisine and shadowed them to events.

"She'd make us tag along to anything, from a festival to a fundraiser," Bender said. "As with any kid, there were things I wanted to do and times when I'd rather have been hanging out with friends. For the most part I enjoyed it." (Hillberg said she got more pushback from her son.)

Added Hillberg: "Like many other people who are born in the United States, [Elisa] was very Americanized, which I why I had to make an extra effort to make sure she learned about Hispanic culture."

Tony Maldonado, a New York-born Puerto Rican who visited with friends at the festival, said he made an effort to keep his children connected to their roots by speaking some Spanish at home and explaining to them the significance of cultural traditions like the Puerto Rican picnic.

"They never felt anything other than Puerto Rican, but at the same time we were assimilated in our community," Maldonado said.

A first-generation American, Maldonado lived for a time in Puerto Rico before moving to Washington, where he worked to get more Hispanic employees in the federal government. In 1983, he came with his family to St. Louis, where he has remained involved in advocacy work and attends the Hispanic lobbying day in Jefferson City.

Omar Maldonado, one of Tony's sons, said it was difficult moving from Washington to St. Louis because of the comparably smaller Hispanic population here. He remembers being one of the only minority students in his elementary school in St. Louis.

"I was trying to fit in and my parents at the same time were pushing the Puerto Rican side that I didn't always want," he said.

This type of generational push and pull is common, Jennings said, particularly in cases (unlike the Maldonado's) where parents grew up in a rural setting in another country and moved the family to an urban location in the United States.

More recent arrivals

While the Hillberg and Maldonado families have had plenty time to establish themselves in St. Louis, Jennings' research suggests that the majority of the area's Hispanic population may have arrived here in the last 13 years. (A large number of recent arrivals are from Mexico.)

Ten years ago, Alexandra Barrera and her family moved from Colombia to the United States. Barerra, who volunteered at a booth during the festival, said that while her parents primarily spoke Spanish to her in the home and pushed her to join a Latin American dance troupe, they have been glad to see her speak English outside the home and enjoy life as an American teenager.

"I think for the adults in my family it was harder to adjust, but I got used to the cultural differences pretty quickly," Barrera said.

Jennings noted that it's more likely for recent immigrant parents to complain that their children have lost touch with their roots than to say they're trying to get their kids to become more Americanized.

Now 19 and married, Barrera is set to begin a college program in computer programming and networking. Her parents "are happy we are here because there are better opportunities for us," she said.

Coming into their own

Both Bender and Omar Maldonado have also used higher education as a springboard. Bender, now 33, briefly attended the University of Missouri and transferred to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, where she lives.

Maldonado, also 33, is enrolled in a business management program at Fontbonnne University. He is also vice president of Puckett Floor Coverings, a full-service business that Tony Maldonado has owned since 1999.

The younger Maldonado worked in a variety of corporate jobs before deciding that he wanted to help grow the family business, which has locations in Florissant and O'Fallon. The business recently earned the Hispanic Company of the Year Award, awarded by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, for its business practices and service to the community.

Omar Maldonado has taken on his father's tradition of being heavily involved in the Hispanic community. He regularly attends Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meetings, accompanies his dad to the Jefferson City lobbying days and has become president of the Puerto Rican Society of St. Louis, which funds $1,000 scholarships for Hispanic students to use toward college tuition. (Maldonado has won other Hispanic scholarships that are helping him pay for his program.)

In his essay for those scholarships, Maldonado said he wrote about the importance of groups within the Hispanic community here not "segregating themselves." Collaborating on cultural festivals is one way to prevent this, he said.

Maldonado said he didn't appreciate festivals and other cultural events until he was an adult. Now that he's married with three kids -- the oldest of whom is 14 -- he said he wants to pass on the tradition to his children.

Bender said she also didn't appreciate the importance of such events until she was in her early 20s. "I understand now that it's a chance for children who grew up here to speak Spanish around other people, which is important, particularly if they don't do it much in the home."

Bender now meets weekly with the Hispanic Fesvital team and brings her children, ages 2 and 6, to the events.

"I like exposing them" to the festivals, she said. "They think it's a big party."