CANTON − What began as a way to get Latinos to register to vote has turned into a festival.
Joanna Escobar is spearheading the free event, which she hopes will introduce the Latino community to their neighbors, and vice versa.
"This all came about because earlier in the year, I was asked to be president of the Hispanic Caucus for the (Stark County) Democratic Party," she said. "One of my projects as president is to have a voter-registration event. We looked at several ideas but none of them sounded good, so I decided to go big. What better time to do a festival than Hispanic Heritage Month?"
Escobar emphasized that although voter registration will be conducted, Saturday's event is not political.
"This is for the community to have fun," she said. "I truly believe our community in Canton deserves a festival. There's a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about our culture. One of my biggest goals is to educate the community about my culture and how beautiful it is."
What's happening at the Latino Festival in Canton?
Saturday's event will feature Latino food trucks, handcrafted clothing and art vendors, informationbooths, a taco-eating contest, bounce houses, a mechanical bull, and live performances by Mexican-music singer Daniel Padilla, Grupo Fuego of Cleveland, DJ Big Junior, and folklore dancers.
“We welcome to Centennial Plaza this weekend the Canton Latino Fest, celebrating the Latino/Hispanic community, culture and cuisine," Mayor Thomas Bernabei said. "We are very proud of our Latino/Hispanic community. We invite everyone to enjoy the Canton Latino Fest.”
Sponsors include Mexican Hibachi, First Christian Church, Poured Foundations of Ohio, Interbelt Nite Club, Craig Covey, LGBT & Diversity Pride Fund, El Campesino, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Ed Davila, FreshMark, Akron Children’s Hospital, Catholic Diocese, Lavender Lanes, Pick’s At Portage Lakes, Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Sol Mexican Restaurant.
A 2013 graduate of McKinley High School and an 2019 alumnus of Walsh University, Escobar is a first-generation Salvadoran-American.
While at Walsh, she also worked as a multicultural admissions counselor.
"I loved it," she said. "Walsh also allowed me to learn about about event planning."
'It's important for me to help people realize that not everyone who is Hispanic is Mexican.'
Escobar said Canton is seeing a growth in Dominicans and Puerto Rican residents, and in Latino-owned businesses.
"It's definitely growing," she said. "A lot of Puerto Ricans are making their way over from Cleveland and Lorain. Also, there's been an increase in Hondurans and Salvadoran from bigger cities. We also have Afro-Latino, and Caribbean Latinos. It's important for me to help people realize that not everyone who is Hispanic is Mexican."
Escobar said she and her family moved to Stark County from New York when she was a teenager. She has plans to attend law school and become an immigration attorney.
"One of the things I've loved about planning this festival is I'm getting connected with so many organizations who are all telling me the same thing: They want to connect with the Latino community, but they don't know how," she said. "I want to be a conduit."
In 2003, Latinos became the largest minority demographic in the U.S., according the U.S. Census Bureau. Over the last decade, Stark County's Latino population has grown by 76%, and now makes up 2.8 percent of the population, or about 10,500 residents.
Sister Karen Lindenberger is director of the Hispanic ministry at St. Anthony/All Saints Catholic Church in southeast Canton. It is one of the largest such groups working with immigrant Latino families in Stark County.
The ministry has offered a kindergarten readiness program for more than dozen years, and helps residents celebrate such holidays as Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead /All Saints) and Las Posades, a novena during the Christmas season.
"They're very good, sincere people looking for work, looking to support their families," Lindenberger said. "They're very hard working. They have very deep faith and they're very family oriented. Getting their kids educated is very important."
Voting power for Latinos
Statistics also show that an American-born Latino turns 18 every 30 seconds, producing 800,000 eligible new voters every year. However, the growth has not yet translated to political power.
Latino voters:Every 30 seconds, a young Latino turns 18
"I truly believe it has a lot with history," Escobar said, noting that Latinos don't always feel part of the communities in which they live. "I think in order for there to be an increase, there needs to be more advocates who can reach to them in their own tongues. With registration, we can truly change the dynamic going on."
Escobar said she's working to foster more connectedness between Latino newcomers and their adopted city.
"I'm really excited for it," she said. "I think it will be great. It's going to be lots of fun. I think it's a great way to merge the Latino population so they feel like a part of Canton."
For more information and updates, visit the Canton Latino Fest Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CantonLatinoFest/
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP
If you go
What: Canton Latino Fest, featuring Latino food trucks, handcrafted clothing and art vendors, informationbooths, a taco-eating contest, bounce houses, a mechanical bull, and live music and other performances.
When: 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Centennial Plaza, 330 Court Ave. NW, in downtown Canton
Admission: Free. Parking also is free at the meters on the weekends.
More details: www.facebook.com/CantonLatinoFest
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Canton to host first Latino Fest