A five-piece stage band flew in from Guatemala. A marching band came all the way from Honduras. And 600 costumed Bolivians traveled down Constitution Avenue NW on 20 different floats.

Three busloads of people drove in from New York City. Two more from Chicago. And one of the most popular singers in Latin America, Ruben Blades, joined the celebration of culture.

Yesterday's Latin American Festival, a colorful 20th anniversary that almost didn't happen, was an event that brought together people from every Latin American country and reflected the new maturity of the Hispanic community in Washington.

"It's a regional affair," said D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who rode in a convertible and waved to the subdued crowd.

The event had its problems.

About 3 p.m., an 18-year-old woman was stabbed several times in the chest during an altercation with another 18-year-old woman, U.S. Park Police said. The victim was taken to George Washington University hospital in critical condition, according to police, who said they were questioning a woman in connection with the incident last night.

Police also said four people were arrested on disorderly conduct charges at the end of the festival, apparently after some of those who attended declined to leave after the event's 6:30 p.m. closing.

And the whole festival was almost canceled last week as organizers scrambled to raise $35,000 demanded by the National Park Service for maintenance and security. Organizers scaled back the parade. And rain constantly threatened, which organizers said accounted for a turnout far smaller than last year. An estimated 60,000 people converged on the grounds of the Washington Monument, 40,000 fewer than a year ago.

But the maturity was still there. No longer was the event confined to the tight streets of Adams-Morgan, and no longer did organizers have to go begging for dignitaries.

If the founders of the festival had hoped 20 years ago that their celebration would reveal their community's presence in the city, yesterday's event, which began precisely at 11:30 a.m., revealed its potential.

The Hispanic community has boomed since the first festival along Columbia Road NW. A population that was then no more than 10,000, mostly Cubans and Puerto Ricans, has exploded to nearly 10 times that today, most of them from Central America, particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua.

And the political power these numbers represent was fully evident by the number of candidates for the upcoming city elections who turned out in yesterday's drizzle to say "hola" to the crowd.

Beyond the dynamics of the festival emerged the dynamics of the Hispanic community. Two themes surfaced as the lavish floats representing 20 countries moved west along Constitution Avenue, between Seventh and 14th streets NW: a recognition of the importance of the Hispanic community and the possibility of misunderstanding its diversity.

Near the head of the parade, for example, organized labor brought in a float for the first time in the parade's history, reflecting its desire to unionize the large number of Hispanics working in service and construction-related jobs.

Then came the mayoral candidates, D.C. Council candidates and candidates for Congress, waving to the crowd, knowing, as at-large council candidate Terry Lynch said, that "those who would like to ignore the Hispanic community can no longer afford to do so."

There are 4,000 registered voters with Hispanic surnames in the District, said Suzanna Cepeda, executive director of the Council of Hispanic Community and Agencies, an umbrella organization for the city's community service groups. "We're an important political sector in Washington, D.C., now," one that could be pivotal in a close election, such as the current Democratic mayoral primary.

"Anybody who is serious about running for office has to show up for this event," Barry said of the festival yesterday.

"This is a great event," mayoral candidate John Ray said before the parade. "It's a marvelous indication of the diversity of culture that we have in our city."

Moments later, Charlene Drew Jarvis, another Democratic mayoral candidate, spoke in similar tones: "I recognize the importance of the Hispanic community," she said. "And I say unabashedly that I am wooing this community."

Chimed in mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon: "We've got to bring together the cultural diversity within this city. The local leadership needs to learn to tap into that quality."

But as candidates talked about the cultural diversity Hispanics bring to the city, Cepeda wondered aloud how aware the candidates are of the diversity within the Hispanic community.

"I wish we did a better job of educating them," she said.

In her information booth alone, there existed stark examples of the divergent nature of the community. Alongside voter registration cards, for example, lay brochures, printed in Spanish, about the rights of illegal immigrants.

The parade demonstrated its own diversity. An intense nationalism still exists among the various Hispanic groups in Washington, and thousands of dollars were spent creating the best float honoring the various homelands.

"I had to resign from my job to work on this," said Sandra Chavarria, who raised $9,000 and coordinated 10 people over 2 1/2 months to design and build the float for Nicaragua. Juan Soto, from Guatemala, spent $3,500 to try to create the most outstanding float of the parade.

But Chavarria said that although a certain divisiveness might exist among people from the different Latin American countries, events like the festival, with its rich mix of music and ethnic foods, help offset this. "It's something that brings us together," she said.