Scores of voters, many of whom spoke little English, lined up at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Adams-Morgan Tuesday to cast ballots in an election little known to most District residents but considered one of the most important in the Latino community.
For the past month, local Hispanic businessmen Eduardo Perdomo and Xavier Garcia have been conducting full-fledged campaigns with all the trappings: flyers, posters, newspaper ads and debates broadcast over the area's only Hispanic radio station.
The prize: control of the increasingly popular Hispano-Americano Festival, which fills the streets of Adams-Morgan every July with a mass of spectators, food stands and artists in a vibrant two-day celebration of Hispanic folk life.
But more importantly, some observers say, the recent campaign and the community fervor it has generated represent an opportunity to build the cornerstones of a political base that has largely eluded the city's rapidly growing Latino community.
The election results were not immediately available.
When the festival started in the heart of the city's largest Hispanic neighborhood 15 years ago, a small board of directors made up of business and community leaders handpicked a president to coordinate the event.
But in the past three years, the presidency of the festival has evolved into such a coveted prize that the office has become an elected post, sought after by many of the leaders who once served on the board.
"This is the first time in the history of the festival that there has been so much activity in the community," said Mia Cara, news director for Spanish language radio station WMDO-AM.
"The community is growing and getting organized and getting a political consciousness. They know that they must organize to grow politically, economically and socially," said Cara.
She added that the race is especially important because many in the community, estimated at between 65,000 and 75,000 persons primarily from Central and South American countries, are ineligible to vote in other elections because they are not American citizens.
Candidates Perdomo and Garcia own construction contracting firms and are members of several community-based and national Hispanic agencies.
They live in suburban Virginia, but they boast of long affiliations with the inner workings of the festival, which last year had a $153,000 budget.
Despite similarities in their backgrounds, they have different ideas about the festival's purpose.
Perdomo, 45, a native of Colombia, said he views the festival as an opportunity to highlight the achievements and contributions of the Hispanic commmunity. But he added that he wants to send a message of pride and determination to young Hispanics, hoping they will be inspired to venture one day into the local political arena.
"The festival is a major movement of Hispanic people in the community," Perdomo said. "It is the only vehicle Hispanics have to express philosophy, music, tradition and folklore.
"It lets people know that we have values and leadership, that there are writers, professionals and artists in this community, and we have to recognize them," he continued.
"We want to tell the rest of the Washington community and our youngsters that we are not a marginal community anymore," Perdomo added. "We are alive and we are here to stay."
Garcia, 35, a native of Spain, said the festival should be kept free of political influences, and he criticized Perdomo for turning the festival into a forum for "his own personal agenda."
"Some people are trying to use the festival as a political platform; I don't believe in that at all," Garcia said.
"It's not fair to the Hispanic or Anglo community," he continued. "The best way for us to get the political attention we need is to have a good festival. If we have a good festival, we'll have politicians chasing us and asking us for things."
Until last week, the contest had a third candidate, entrepreneur and community organizer Yasmin Griffiths-Garabito, but in a surprise announcement she dropped out and supported Perdomo's slate, which includes other officers for the festival.
The Panamanian-born Griffiths-Garabito, 31, had been one of the most controversial figures in the campaign and had described her candidacy as "a political statement."
The daughter of unsuccessful mayoral candidate Arturo Griffiths, she speaks bluntly about the lack of a forceful Hispanic advocate and of her vision of a politically viable Latino community.
"Right now there is no political structure to the Latino community, there is no one we can put our trust in that is sensitive and respectful to the needs of the community," she said. "First the Latino community has to pay its dues in the political arena, and make the right allegiances."
Some have argued that the recent struggle for control of the festival has divided the community along racial and cultural lines.
But Cara said she believed that the contest has had a positive effect on the community.
"Sure it is power-playing," Cara said. "They the candidates want to gain visibility with the community through the festival. But it is good for them, their businesses and the community."