Salsa and samba music played in the background as people gathered on the streets. The scent of guacamole, barbeque, and tamales lingered in the air as booths set up artwork, food, flags and clothes. Colors of red, blue and white dominated as Puerto Rico’s flag and colors were displayed proudly at the festival.
Taller Puertorriqueño recently hosted the 27th Annual Feria Del Barrio, a local festival in the Fairhill area of Philadelphia in celebration of Puerto Rican and Latino heritage.
What started out as an event that played host to only hundreds, the festival has grown over the years to attendance figures estimated in the thousands. One explanation for its popularity is the cultural history of festivals in the Latino community.
“Festivals are a very strong tradition in Latin America including Puerto Rico,” said Carmen Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño. “These kinds of festivals are very tied to our culture. We felt that this neighborhood needed to have one central to its community, its location.”
One of the main attractions at the festival is a stage where musicians, dancers and other performers are featured. Some of those groups include Taller Dance Group, Jimmy Jorge and the Latin Express and Grupo Fuego.
The event takes place at Centro de Oro, which is at North Fifth Street between Cambria Street and Lehigh Avenue. With thousands of people in attendance, more than 50 performers, delicious food and fun activities, the festival is ideal for the Latin American culture.
The Taller Puertorriqueño was the lone sponsor of the festival at first, but now co-sponsors it with the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises, Raìces Culturales Latinoamericanas, and Congreso del Latinos Unidos.
In addition to the sponsors, many other organizations affiliated with the Latino community use the festival as opportunity to make their presence be known. One such group is the Hispanic American Riders Association which was founded in 1999 by retired Philadelphia police officer Jose Figueroa.
The group’s primary function is one of volunteering and giving back in addition to riding motorcycles. “Our association is a group of individual professionals of different levels,” Figueroa said. “We are family-orientated. We bring in police, correctional officers, lawyers, doctors, union chiefs, all people who want to be a part of our community, involved and give back.”
Figueroa’s history with the Feria del Barrio precedes the founding of his organization and goes back 27 years to his time as a police officer when he was assigned to the festival.
When asked why he keeps coming back, Figueroa responded, “culture, tradition, music, the food, everything, everything is about our community, our neighborhood.”
Another main function of the festival is the display and promotion of local and Latino artists. Some of the art displays include watercolor, oil painting, paintings on hats, skateboards and mosaics.
Some of the artists have been long time contributors to the festival or the Taller Puertorriqueño in general, while others such as James Ryan are new to it.
Ryan, who is a street performer from Philadelphia, was attending and performing at the festival for the very first time. “Me and my partner do street performance, we do stilt walking, and face painting, jugglingand all sorts of stuff,” Ryan said.
Ryan came away with a very excited and positive impression from his first Feria del Barrio experience. “It is nice to see the community come together and it’s their culture and gives them time to express themselves,” Ryan said.
On the other end of the spectrum are more established artists such as Ralfka Gonzalez who goes way back with Taller Puertorriqueño, whom he attributes much of his success to.
“Taller Puertorriqueño gave me my second solo show after Temple, but it was the really big show,” Gonzalez said. “During that time they had bus posters with my work all over the city of Philadelphia.
Gonzalez, who no longer lives in Philadelphia, came to the festival and displayed his work as a token of appreciation to the Taller Puertorriqueño.
One thing that Gonzalez stressed was how art has been a coping mechanism and has helped heal him, specifically in regards to being diagnosed with HIV in 2001.
“At that time I had a truck that I was painting and the truck looked like a Mexican sugar bowl, but when these things started happening, people started crying and coming up to me and saying how art heals,” Gonzalez said. “Little did they know that I was healing from having HIV and it had a profound effect on me in that my artwork has the ability to make people feel better.”
With nearly three decades of history, the Feria del Barrio has done a good job of representing and promoting Latin American culture in Philadelphia, which is evidenced not only by its repetition, but also by its growth. “It started as an event of only one organization, but in time we’ve made it grow,” Miguel said.