The Adams-Morgan-Mount Pleasant area next week will explode with the sights, rhythms and foods of Spain, Mexico, Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean as Washington's Latino community celebrates its 14th annual Hispanic Heritage Week.
The festival--strictly a local affair, not to be confused with the National Hispanic Heritage Week celebrated around the country in September--is widely seen as a unifying event in the diverse community it celebrates, although there are dissenters to that view.
"There are really three Hispanic communities here in Washington," said Willie Vasquez, a New York-born Puerto Rican who directs the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs, an agency created as a result of the festival's initial success.
"There is the international community, consisting of the embassies and the international organizations. There is the national community, consisting mostly of federal workers and individuals representing U.S. Hispanic organizations' interest here in the capital. They tend to be more mobile. Then, of course, there is the local community firmly planting their roots in the District."
Although the international and national communities play a limited role in the festival, Vasquez said, "they provide a lot of technical assistance, identify resources and help arrange cultural events. But they also come and enjoy themselves."
With residents from Spain, Mexico and every country in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Central and South America, Washington's Hispanic community is more complex than it appears, consisting of cultures within cultures.
"The only place in the world that comes close to such a diverse population is the United Nations," said Mexican-born Jan Calderon Yocum, director of the bilingual Rosemont Day Care Center.
It is a population variously estimated at 60,000 to 140,000, with nearly 200 Hispanic-owned businesses, its own social and civic infrastructure and a certain amount of political power.
The festival began because "the Hispanic leadership wanted to organize a group of people to demonstrate the presence of an Hispanic community in D.C., to demonstrate our collective cultural pride and to show the city we could put people into the street without obstructing justice," said Marcelo Fernandez, Cuban-born director of bilingual education for the D.C. public schools.
More than 50,000 persons attended last year's festival, and organizers say they expect twice that number this year.
"It's the one time in the year when the extreme left joins forces with the extreme right," said Fernandez, president of the first festival in 1969.
During the week, attention will focus on issues concerning women, youth and the elderly as well as the Hispanic community's history and the African contribution to Latin culture.
Hispanics employed by the D.C. government and nonprofit agencies will be honored, the D.C. soccer championship will be decided and a festival queen crowned. The week's finale will be a grand parade down Columbia Road.
Washington residents with roots in Spain and Indo- and Afro-Hispanic America are building elaborate floats for the July 31 parade.
The festival provides political, social and cultural benefits to the community, said Enrique Rivera, president of the Hispanic American Festival Inc., which coordinates the week.
"Politically, it's a massive affirmation of the Hispanic presence in Washington. Economically, it allows nonprofit organizations to raise funds and the business community to sell its wares," he said. "Socially and culturally, it allows us to share our love for our individual Hispanic heritages--among ourselves and with the rest of the Washington community."
Others, however, question the impact and value of the celebration.
"I think it's superficial to say that the community is united at this time of year," said B.B. Otero, the Bolivian-born preschool coordinator for the Spanish Education Development Center, the area's first bilingual, multicultural preschool.
"It lacks substance," said another community leader, who asked to remain anonymous. "There is so much energy put into the festival. I just wish that the same energy could be put into more constructive things."
Critics who challenge the festival's economic value point out that Hispanic American Festival Inc. lost $4,000 last year.
For many in the community, the festival is a brief reprieve from day-to-day problems of job scarcity, housing difficulties, raids by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and turf battles that divide their leaders.
"Problems we have all year 'round," Rivera said. "A celebration we have once a year."