The streets of Adams-Morgan exploded with the sounds, sights and smells of joy this weekend in a tribute to Washington's diverse and growing Hispanic community and a celebration worthy of the word festival.

All along Columbia Road, from 16th Street to Kalorama, thousands of people danced to soft reggae and electrified salsa, sampled an exotic and endless selection of finger foods from 20 Latin American countries, paraded in glorious homeland colors down the middle of the road and, more than anything else, practiced the Spanish verb pasear, which means to stroll while having a good time.

The Hispanic-American Festival has been held here for 12 years, and every year it seems to become larger, prouder and more a part of this area, which is a now home, by some accounts, to some 70,000 Hispanics, many of them United States citizens, some of them illegal aliens. "There is no doubt," said Enrique Rivera, chief organizer of this year's celebration, "that the festival, like the community, is growing quickly."

More than 50,000 persons stopped by the festival Saturday and yesterday to take part in a vibrant and sensuous exchange of cultures, songs and foods. A woman in the Peruvian contingent wore a Guatemalan hat ornament as a head band. Brazilian percussionists donned tie-dyed African dashikis. The salsa band leader was from Haiti. His bass player was from El Salvador, his conga drummer from America.

At the Imperial apartment building on Columbia Road, some Salvadorans were in too much of a hurry to stop and give their names. "The parade's about to start!" the father yelled over his shoulder, as his family scampered to their privileged viewing point on a second-story window ledge. Moments later, the Colombian contingent drowned out the Xaragua band with an energetic mapale, an erotic dance of infinite rythmic subtlety. Just behind them marched the Guatemalans, resplendent in their multicolored embroidered robes and gracefully sad in their Indian ceremonial music.

The political strife of their homelands was not forgotten on this day. In an unprecendeted break with the nonpolitical traditions of the festival, a Salvadoran contingent unfurled the red and black banner of the leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front during the parade, and a guerrilla theater group staged a mock arrest of young protesters by the Salvadorean National Guard.

But even here all was not serious. Some of the protesters could not resist stepping in time to the infectious Latin music, and a generous bystander offered a drink to a grateful youth who was impersonating Roberto D'Aubuisson, the ultraconservative head of El Salvador's National Assembly.

"I think it is good that the parade included this aspect of our reality," said one Salvadoran in the crowd, who asked not to be identified. An American who was enjoying the parade disagreed. "It was kind of inappropriate, I thought," said Andy Hoh, from New York. "All those guns and things."

All thoughts of politics and war vanished when the Brazilians came into view. Leading the glittering display was an improvised escola da samba, or samba dance group. One of the best dancers managed to gyrate at superhuman speed without losing her glasses, a skill not to be sneered at. Another dancer greeted his many friends in the crowd without losing a step. "I came all the way from Takoma to see you," someone shouted, and the dancer waved and sambaed on.

Festival organizer Rivera said that all the groups in the parade come from the Washington area--most from the District of Columbia, many from the eastern half of Montgomery County. The sidewalk revelers included many Americans. "I love the atmosphere, the food and the music," said Samuel Martin, who used to work in the neighborhood.

Here and there an American would make a shy attempt to follow the complex sequence of dance steps involved in a Cuban rumba or a Dominican merengue, but for the Latins any corner near the music was a good place to dance. An old man, defiantly clamping his teeth on a last stub of cigar, did a mean merengue all by himself, overcome with pleasure, as younger couples improvised less traditional but equally satisfactory versions.

As the contingents disbanded, and the paraders looked for a shady place to picnic, Kalorama park flowered into an ethnic garden. The somber Inca people from the Andean countries were there, mingling with exuberant blacks and mulattoes from the Caribbean nations, and cosmopolitan Argentines, Chileans and Uruguayans.

Characteristically, the Brazilians shunned food for more samba and capoeira, a rythmic version of an ancient African martial art.

Looking like gigantic wedding cakes, a half-dozen white-clad women--practitioners of santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion--swayed and clapped hands.

Tomasa Soto, of Cerro de Pasco, Peru, was too hungry to shed her elaborate ceremonial cloak before eating. Her friends at one of the many Peruvian stands handed her an anticucho, or liver shishkebab.

One always misses one's country," she said between bites. "That's why I came here to dance. It helps me remember Peru, and show others what it's like."

Andy Hoh thought he'd learned something about Latin America from watching Soto and the other paraders.

"Most Americans don't have traditions like this after they've been here for a couple of generations," he said. "You sure don't see this in Falls Church.