Fayetteville chamber boss says annual Hispanic Heritage Festival has an economic development angle

by Rose Ann Pearce (rapearce@thecitywire.com) 83 views 

The fourth annual Northwest Arkansas Hispanic Heritage Festival is set to open Saturday (Oct. 1), and is considered by Fayetteville chamber officials as an economic development tool.

The festival includes a variety of music, dancing, food, soccer, health fair, information booths and activities for adults and children of all ages. The event will kickoff at 10 a.m. Saturday at Mae Farm, 4618 N. College Ave, Fayetteville and conclude Sunday (Oct. 2) at 6 p.m. The festival is free and open to the public.

This year’s event will recognize and celebrate the Central American country of El Salvador, a small country slightly smaller than Massachusetts and home to nearly 7 million people. El Salvador Cónsul General Jose Mario Mejia Barrera from Dallas will join the festivities for the opening ceremony on Saturday. He will also spend his time in Northwest Arkansas visiting with city and University of Arkansas officials on Friday, (Sept. 29), according to Chris Decker, director of events and professional services for the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce.

Fayetteville Chamber President Steve Clark said the chamber began the festival four years ago as a vehicle to celebrate and salute the growing Hispanic population in Northwest Arkansas. A different country is recognized each year. The first year, Panama was saluted, following by Mexico and Colombia.

The Fayetteville festival is modeled after a similar event in Memphis which has a 40-year history, Clark said. The date coincides with National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrated throughout the country from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to recognize the contributions, heritage and culture of Hispanic and Latino Americans. The celebration was established by legislation and proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968.

The festival is also seen as an economic development tool to encourage Hispanic businesses and citizens to settle in Fayetteville, Clark said. Greg Fess, who heads Univision in Little Rock, said his company has partnered with the Fayetteville Chamber since the beginning four years ago. Univision is the local Spanish television affiliate.The festival has grown each year since it began. Last year, attendance was about 11,000.

“The Latino population has grown 20 percent in Northwest Arkansas and is now a significant part of the market. It will continue to get bigger and bigger,” Fess said.

According to the Pew Research Center, the Hispanic population was about 205,000 in 2014, making up about 7% of the state’s population. In Benton County, the Hispanic population was 39,180 in 2014, accounting for about 16% of the county’s population, according to the Pew report. In Washington County, the Hispanic population was 35,840 during the same period, also accounting for about 16% of the county’s population. Overall, the Hispanic population has increased 747% since 1990 in Washington County and 891% in Benton County for the same time period, according to the Pew report.

Organizers of this year’s event have planned a soccer tournament featuring 12 men’s teams and six women’s team. The games will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday and be played at Lake Fayetteville’s softball fields which are adjacent to the festival location.

Throughout the festival, performers from the U.S., Mexico, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Colombia will perform hourly on the festival stage as well as El Salvadoran performer Ritmo Cuscatteco, who will be on stage at 11:10 a.m. Sunday. The music will be mixed with several dance performances both days. Luis Ventura will teach a tropical dance at 11 a.m. Saturday and a dance contest will close out the entertainment at 3:50 p.m. Sunday.

As a country, El Salvador has the second largest population next to Mexico, Fees said. Located between Honduras and Guatemala, it is the smallest of Central American countries with 8,124 square miles. It is also the only Central American country without a coastline on the Caribbean Sea. Its coastline is on the Pacific Ocean side of Central America.

The country is known for its Pacific beaches, surf spots and mountainous landscape. The country has the third largest economy in Central America, behind Panama and Costa Rica, according to the World Factbook, published by the Central Intelligence Agency. The website Infoplease.com states the major agriculture products are coffee, sugar, corn, rice, beans, beef, dairy and shrimp. Major industries are food processing, petroleum, fertilizer, textiles and furniture.

The country is also known as the Land of the Volcanoes because of more than 20 volcanoes, including two which are active, according to website Tanamatales.com.

Festival sponsors for this year’s event include Walmart, Sam’s Club, Arkansas Dentistry and Braces, Lewis Automotive Group, Cox and CertaPro Painters. All proceeds generated by the festival stay in Northwest Arkansas. The Funds will be reinvested in Hispanic/Latino-related community education efforts and used to support future festivals.

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