Monday, July 22, 2019

CommUnity Through the Storm

People expect eloquence and articulation from a writer. That said, I don't feel like a writer right now because the only word I can think of to describe the 2019 Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival is WOW. It leads all other thoughts, which are driven by a strong current of emotions that also end with, WOW.

For those unfamiliar with this event and what it means to me, please click here, here and here and then please come back to read the rest of this post.

The day started at 6:25AM because I am not good at sleeping. I decided to make myself a good breakfast because I have learned over the years that when working this event I may not eat again until I make it home at the end of the night. I wanted to support my favorite coffee shop that was donating 10% of their sales to refugee and immigrant assistance programs so I stopped to get one of my favorite drinks of all time, an iced horchata latte. I grabbed an extra one for a dear friend and fellow organizer and headed to the festival site to unload my first carload of stuff for the festival.

It was a hot, humid day but our festival is under a lovely canopy that provides shade and we had a steady breeze so it was bearable. Over the course of the morning I moved furniture, loaded and unloaded a ton of stuff from various cars and trucks, made a few more trips to grab stuff we needed and helped transform the venue into an event that shows love to all ages.

After a quick run home for a shower and fresh set of non-sweat-drenched clothes, I was off for what I anticipated to be a long day. My heart was full as it usually is when I see so many people working together for a common cause. We truly have the best volunteers on the planet and they were sweating alongside me with smiles on their faces. I sent many prayers of thanks into the universe, along with even more pleas for the weather to remain as it was. We had artists on the roads and in the skies and I wanted them to arrive safely and on time. There were guests coming from all parts of the state and beyond and I wished them safe travels as well. I checked and re-checked my app and it indicated a 30% chance of storms. I thought the odds were in our favor.

Guests streamed in and our volunteers were hard at work creating a welcoming and comfortable space. The bands were full of energy and the place was filled with a feeling of community and joy. Vendors were busy feeding people and making amazing food. The air smelled heavenly. Even though I was still working hard to ensure everything was running smoothly, I was filled with gratitude that guests were enjoying something I helped create.

All was going well when, like something out of a movie, the skies darkened and the air cooled. An officer hired for security at the festival pulled me aside and said, "We heard through dispatch that a storm is ripping through the area with high winds. If winds reach fifty miles per hour we are going to have to evacuate the plaza, the canopy can only safely sustain winds of fifty miles per hour." She went on to explain where they would lead our guests, vendors and volunteers and I nodded, all the while internally screaming, "NNNNNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!"

Rain fell almost as soon as she explained the plan and I ran to tell the food vendors to move their gear to the center of their tents, grab their cash and follow the cops to a safe place. My feet slipped on the wet grass and I got completely drenched as I ran from tent to tent relaying the message and helping them move items out of the rain. 

The wind picked up and our largest tent began to come apart. Guests covered themselves with whatever they could find and hurried to follow the cops to the shelter. Some kids looked scared and I didn't blame them. The sky was dark, wind howled and the rain came down in sheets.

The bounce houses started blowing away and volunteers jumped on them and wrapped their arms around them to keep them grounded. The smaller tents began to blow away and we all grabbed on to the ones we could and held on, rain slapping our faces, the wind making it difficult to see. We called to one another, encouraging one another to hold on. We worked together to tear down the tents and drag them into the shelter. 

The mood was one of surprise and shock. No one expected the storm. It had been such a clear, beautiful day. Iowa is usually dry this late in July. We had never encountered rain during the event, even when it was indoors. As soon as the five organizers found each other in the shelter we huddled up and began brainstorming. Bringing our headliner, Celso PiƱa, a Grammy-winning artist and one of the world's greatest accordion players had been a three-year endeavor. He was finally performing in Iowa and would leave in less than twenty-four hours. We didn't want to let anyone down. Moving the event would ensure that he would perform. 

The winds calmed and the rain became a drizzle but the damage was done. The electrical equipment for the sound and light were wet. It would be too dangerous to try to continue where we were and there was another storm headed our way, slated to hit around the time the headliner would be performing. 

Local performers joined our huddle and within minutes we secured a venue that had the stage, lights and sound equipment we would need to ensure the festival continued. We made plans on the spot and began contacting the bands that had not yet performed and informed them of the change of venue. With the exception of one, all were super accommodating and said they would be there.

We announced the change to the crowd and asked them to give us an hour to get situated and assured them the show would go on. From that point on, everything moved super fast. Volunteers and band members that had already performed stayed behind clearing the venue of all that remained outside. I began selling tickets to guests that had just arrived and explained what was going on. I posted the change of venue on social media. Our friends at the ticketing agency we work with changed the venue on the ticketing website and sent an email to all online ticket holders. We asked all the guests to please share the new plan on their social media. Someone called the local Spanish radio stations and asked them to announce the change on air. Guests began arriving at the new venue and I rushed across the city to get there. 

When I arrived there was a crowd that swelled from inside the lobby to outside on the sidewalk, waiting to get in while the stage and sound equipment was set up. One of the bands was already inside doing a set a cappella while they waited for the stage to be done. I scrambled to set up the ticketing equipment at the door but internet was down. While I worked to resolve the issue, my mother in law took charge. She began telling the crowd about Warren. I could not hear what she shared but it quieted the room as they listened to her. It afforded me time to find a hot spot and for the backline to arrive and begin loading instruments and amps onto the stage.

Running on pure adrenaline and a will to succeed, we got the crowd inside the new spot and dancing within an hour of evacuating the first venue. As the night settled and the bands performed as scheduled, the place filled with dancing, singing, smiling guests. Some complained and asked for refunds and I obliged but the majority got right back into having a good time and our amazing volunteers worked tirelessly to be as accommodating as possible. There are so many small details people chipped in to help with that I did not know about but helped make it all possible and the underlying theme is a will to succeed. Everyone - from our bar tenders, to the bands, volunteers, security guards and guests wanted the festival to be successful. They were committed and jumped in where needed to make it come together and I am in awe of this community. It affirms that they believe in this event as much as the Fab Five of us who work throughout the year to make it happen.

Since then I have experienced a roller coaster of emotions. I am sad that it did not turn out as planned because there was so much I had been looking forward to offering the community. I wanted to see the kids paint the mural the artists had created. We fought for months to get our own beer license to supplement ticket sales and generate a source of revenue we could use to grow in 2020 and those gains were lost. Food vendors had prepped and worked to serve delicious foods from Mexico, Puerto Rico and El Salvador and they would have financial losses as well. I felt for their loss as much as my own. Most of all, I had hoped and prayed so hard that this would be the festival that turned the corner for us, legitimizing us so that moving forward we wouldn't have to beg so hard for sponsors and funding from the non-POC arts and culture purse-string holders in the city. I internalized every mean thing the dissatisfied guests said to me when they rudely vocalized how inconvenient the changes were to them and demanded their money back. 

In the moment I didn't have time to marvel at what we accomplished but looking back, all I can think is, WOW. It could have been much different. We could have cancelled but that never came up. There could have been casualties as the storm tore down trees, knocked out power and caused severe damage to parts of the city but our officers kept everyone calm and safe. We lost some guests who didn't get the message or chose not to venture out but we still packed the house and sold almost one hundred tickets after midnight. But what moves me most of all is how many people jumped in to help. It was truly a community effort that brought together all ages, backgrounds, languages and cultures. I felt supported and encouraged throughout. Messages of thanks and congratulations have been coming in since then and people have posted amazing photos of themselves having a great time, with huge smiles on their faces. I have new heroes that I wouldn't have had otherwise and feel more determined than ever that this festival matters. 

Crazy as it sounds, I am more committed than ever to seeing this festival continue to bring joy because as a close friend of mine once said, "Joy is an act of resistance."

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