In Wheaton Regional Park yesterday, Savino Cacerez covered every available square inch of his charcoal grill with carne asada, tortillas and a spicy chorizo sausage as he celebrated the Fourth of July with his girlfriend and her family, a dozen hungry people in all.
Cacerez, a construction worker from Riverdale, said that when he first came to this country from El Salvador 21 years ago, he felt awkward celebrating Independence Day. In El Salvador, communities prefer to shoot off their fireworks at Christmas and New Year's, but he has since gotten used to the midsummer explosions of light and sound and looks forward to family cookouts and then a ride to the Mall to watch the show. "We come here to unite with" Americans, Cacerez said in Spanish.
Throughout the Washington suburbs, people greeted the holiday in the same way, celebrating their togetherness by donning shirts that mimicked the colors of the flag, applauding John Philip Sousa music and sharing feelings of support for U.S. troops, mixed with concern about the length of the war in Iraq.
"We accomplished what we set out to do there," said Robert Levy, an optometrist who lives in Fairfax County and was watching the Fairfax City parade with his stepdaughters Vanessa, 9, and Bianca, 8. "I think we should get out of there."
Ginny O'Shea was one of many in the crowd of 15,000 in Fairfax City wearing shirts of red, white and blue, and she had her similarly attired 17-month-old granddaughter, Heather, on her shoulders. Michael O'Shea, Ginny's husband, who served in Vietnam, was marching with a Veterans of Foreign Wars group. She recalled that their sons Joe and Kelly used to ride their bicycles in the parade when they were Cub Scouts.
The war in Iraq, O'Shea said, "is a commitment. I don't want to see happen what happened in Vietnam. We can't let our troops down."
On the other side of the nation's capital, in Takoma Park, the Independence Day parade featured firetrucks, hot rods, parents pushing kids on strollers, unicycle riders, a group of dog trainers and their charges walking in zigzag lines. And since the community is one of the most politically liberal in the area, there were also antiwar messages.
"The point we're trying to get across is we're not too proud to be Americans today," said George Taylor, who was part of a peace group's float in the parade.
Despite a few jeers, he said, the community was very receptive to the group's concerns. "We're proud of our country when it's doing right," he said, later adding, "Peace is patriotic."
Although the war may have been on the minds of the holiday celebrants, there was little evidence of it on most parade routes and in parks. It was hard to find anyone in uniform other than the few military units and veterans groups that marched. Some of the parading groups were very experienced and very busy, like the 72 members of the award-winning band from Fort Calhoun (Neb.) High School (total enrollment: 200 students), who left right after the Fairfax City parade so they could make a second parade appearance in Philadelphia last night.
Stella and Tom Sasala of Fairfax City watched their 19-month-old son, Julian, excitedly greet the appearance of the Muppet Elmo in the Fairfax City parade. Then they ate at Main Street Bagels before a 2 p.m. event -- a fire hose contest in front of Fire Station 3 on University Boulevard. The Sasalas stayed safely back from the street as rival fire crews tried to see who could hit three targets the fastest, then raised the hoses in triumph and sprayed a segment of the crowd -- including many children in swimsuits -- that was waiting for a cool shower on a hot day.
In Takoma Park, the music was contagious as several Caribbean musical groups pounded calypso drums on the back of flatbed delivery trucks. Once the parade meandered into the narrower residential streets, it took on the feel of a giant block party.
At several houses, multiple generations of family members sat on lawn chairs, blankets or sidewalks as the parade passed by. Balloons flew and flags waved. In the houses in front of the parade route, neighbors greeted one another from their front steps with cool beverages in hand. Many people bumped into old friends, college buddies or co-workers.
Suzanne Ludlow, a Takoma Park city government employee, waited at the foot of the Philadelphia Avenue hill, where the parade ended, and distributed cold water to parade watchers and participants. What she most enjoyed, she said, was the celebration of so many different ethnicities and cultures living in the same area. "This is a place where everybody comes together," she said.
Near the beginning of the Fairfax City parade on Chain Bridge Road, Tomas Moreno -- a native of El Salvador like Savino Cacerez -- was gazing with interest at a man dressed like an elephant and riding in a convertible. Moreno said he has lived in the area for 26 years but never attended the parade before. His job unloading trucks at a supermarket keeps him busy, but he said he was glad to take a break to watch the bands and clowns and politicians and Girl Scouts go by.
"I love this country so much," he said.
What would he be doing the rest of the holiday?
"Get some sleep," he said. "I have to go back to work tonight."