The festivals are typically funded by donations from wealthy members of the community and by corporate sponsors that want to tap into ethnic markets. But with the high cost of flying in big-name musicians and bills for security and sound systems, some events barely break even. Jimenez says he’s owed money all over town, a statement his clients do not dispute. He puts festival organizers on a payment plan and waits.
Jimenez likes to dish about each community — who always goes over budget, who are the big dreamers and who likes to micromanage.
“You can guess,” he said.
But for every group, the festivals are a source of pride — a taste of the old country and a chance to forget the pressures of their new lives in the United States. “Families will save up and then spend money at these events,” said Rhadames Avila, 54, who organizes Hispanic beauty pageants and is helping to plan the Latin music festival in Hyattsville.
“They are a centerpiece of a family’s year, and Robert is like their problem-fixer.”
Born in the Dominican Republic, Jimenez understands that need to escape, to let the tastes and sounds of the past become present, at least for an afternoon. He moved to this country when he was 12. His mother had five children and worked in a factory making boots for fishermen in New Hampshire.
“I once realized she was so exhausted that she had fallen asleep in the bathroom,” he said. He was in high school at the time and was planning to join the track team. “But I had to quit and help the family by getting a job,” he said.
He worked in housekeeping at a veterans hospital. He worked as a security guard, “so I could study.” He worked as an EMT. “When you come to this country, you have to do every job that will have you,” he said. But his favorite gig was being a DJ at weddings. Hispanic American couples loved the fact that Jimenez was bilingual and knew music from both cultures. “But I would always blow up my equipment,” he said. “The only thing I knew how to do was make it loud!”
He worked his way into the music-promoting world and ended up working for Budweiser promoting the beer at Latino music events and nightclubs in town.
“During that time I noticed Latino musicians coming into the U.S. to perform at ethnic festivals,” he said. “I realized this was a big market that was underserved.”
Gurmit Sunny Malhi, 39, an information technology specialist for the State Department who organizes the Punjabi festival in his free time, met Jimenez by accident when he went to Bull Run Park in Centreville to take the venue’s measurements. He hired Jimenez right away for the South Asian party — but it was 2011, and the event was canceled because of Hurricane Irene.
“Robert stayed through the washout, helping us pack up till midnight and using his contacts to get some money back,” Malhi said. “He’s like this guru of ethnic festivals, period. We hired him again the next year.”
Driving through the Riverdale neighborhood known as Little Mexico after the Hyattsville tour, Jimenez passed a string of Mexican bars, churches and taquerias along with crowds of Mexican workers who were lined up to be picked as day laborers.
“Immigrants work so hard here, and these festivals really matter to them,” said Jimenez, who spent the past few weeks learning how to operate the latest lighting boards and digital consoles. “There’s not a specific college for what I do — ethnic-festival planning. But I patch things together. Like, most immigrants, I’ve done a lot of jobs. But this one has been my favorite. There’s no way I am giving it up now.”