In Howard, Partying the Old Cuban Way

Partyers line up for Cuban food and drink in the backyard of Enrique Carrillo, vice president of Chevy Chase Bank. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007

The leafy wilds of Howard County are not the first place you'd expect to stumble upon a pachanga Cubana.

But look, listen, taste, smell: The sounds of Cuban salsa soar amid the tall oak trees, the minty mojitos are flowing like water. Among the 100 or so politicos, entrepreneurs, bankers and social service managers gathered yesterday afternoon and evening around the swimming pool, there are more guayaberas than sports coats. They're feasting on Cuban classics like ropa vieja (beef) and lechon (pork), followed by flan and tres leches, then strong coffee and long cigars -- not from Cuba, alas, the puffing men complain in mock dismay, but from Honduras.

Pachanga Howard? Latino middle-class professionals have long since spread beyond the typical Latino neighborhoods in and around Washington. In common with professionals the world over, they like to party and to network. This pachanga -- a word that Cubans in particular use to mean "big party" -- is supposed to combine both passions of the multi-tasking careerist. Leave your stuffy work inhibitions at home.

The hosts are Enrique Carrillo, director of Hispanic banking for Chevy Chase Bank, and his wife, Maria, a doctor who specializes in pulmonary critical care. Enrique Carrillo likes to say he's "American with Cuban parts" -- his parents fled Castro and he was born in the United States -- while Maria Carrillo was born in Cuba. But Cubans are actually in the minority here in the Carrillo back yard, their big brick home thrown open to natives from at least a dozen Latin American countries, along with several appreciative gringos.

"Enrique is bringing back something we haven't seen in many years, which is getting together for no reason," says Johnny Yataco, Peruvian-born publisher of the Washington Hispanic newspaper.

"What you're seeing here represents the dramatic economic and political growth of the Latino community in our region," says Leon Rodriguez, county attorney for Montgomery County, a Cuban American who for the occasion donned a white guayabera he bought in Little Havana, Miami.

Maybe more important, Rodriguez adds: "At the core, it's just a good party."

Transferred a little more than a year ago from a similar job with a bank in Michigan, Carrillo, 41, and his wife, 37, found this house only a few months ago. The couple do not have children. As they were house hunting, top on their list of the attributes they were seeking in a residence was that it be able to handle Carrillo's annual pachangas, which he had turned into a kind of regional happening after four years in suburban Detroit.

The handsome-looking place still needs a lot of work, Carrillo claims -- a second shower maybe? -- but he refused to delay throwing a pachanga. He wrote a memo for his bosses at Chevy Chase, who had never heard of such a thing. But then, Carrillo has been hired to institute change. Thanks to him, when you call the bank's main number, the second sentence you hear is "Gracias por llamar a Chevy Chase Bank" -- "Thank you for calling Chevy Chase Bank." The phrase "Hablamos su idioma" -- "We speak your language" -- is now part of the bank's marketing. Some other banks are ahead of Chevy Chase in reaching out to Latinos, but Carrillo says he wants to set a new standard.

"Bringing people together, what a wonderful thing to do, and that's what I like to do," Carrillo says.

The pachanga can only help. A mascot dressed as a credit card wanders through the crowd, and some Chevy Chase staffers wear polo shirts that say "Hablamos su idioma." But the partyers can tolerate a little bank boosterism.

"It's a good example to other businesses to be closer to the community," says the Rev. Jos┬┐ Hoyos, the Colombian-born director of the Spanish Apostolate of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, whose projects are supported by the bank. "When you have a program that is doing something positive, why not advertise? Why not do propaganda?"

The rum-based mojitos by the Bolivian American caterer Javier Quiroga are a hit. Hoyos sips his in a coffee cup -- so no one can tell what the priest is drinking, he jokes.

"It can't be a Cuban party without lechon and mojitos," says Alejandro Carrasco, the Dominican-born president of Radio America. "You can't get better than this, and we're competing against the Redskins" -- a reference to yesterday's late-afternoon home game against the New York Giants.

"I've been in this country 25 years, but I've never tried a mojito," says Miguel Angelo Rivera, who owns a stone contracting business in Baltimore. "It's good!"

Rivera, from El Salvador, and his wife, Estely, are eating at a canopied table on the lawn with three others.

"El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama," says Jilma Lasso, a Washington lawyer, pointing to herself and her law partner-brother, Ricardo, as the Panamanians, the Riveras from El Salvador, and Jorge Sanchez, owner of a Silver Spring Allstate insurance agency, who's from Guatemala.

Sanchez says he's already met two Montgomery County officials who want to invite him to give seminars on insurance to Latinos. Who knows what business that might lead to. Sanchez says he doesn't even bank with Chevy Chase. Maybe he'll have to consider changing banks, he says with a smile.

Jilma Lasso says it's such a difference doing this kind of business-pleasure ritual at someone's home with good Latino cuisine instead of some dreary hotel conference room. "We're used to wine and cheese," she says, rolling her eyes and digging into some more black beans.

That's just how Enrique Carrillo designed it. Tall and genial, he basks in the energetic vibe of friends being made, goodwill being sown.

There are Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Howard County Police Chief William McMahon chatting, among the non-Latino guests who've come.

But there are several no-shows. Missing are Latin American embassy officials who were expected, and some more political heavyweights.

But it's just the pachanga's first year. Carrillo expects it to get bigger and better in years to come, recalling his experience in suburban Detroit.

Finally, out comes the coffee, served in thimble-size cups, and the cigars. Yet one detail of the traditional pachanga is missing: No one gets up to dance to all that salsa music, being played on CDs from a sound system. Some office inhibitions are impossible to overcome, for now.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company