Making History While Making a Home

I thought that writing an article about the history of Iowa's Latino Heritage Festival would be easy because I was part of it from the start. But, that actually made it more difficult. 

As a journalist, you must be neutral. When you're personally invested in a story, it can come out in your writing and make it biased. That can isolate your audience. Unless it's a commentary or opinion piece, the writer is supposed to be a vessel of information, not a portal to their personal experience.

Interviewing for this story, I talked to friends I've known for over twenty years. We laughed over some of the hard lessons we learned, and got teary-eyed remembering some of the more touching moments we experienced. We remembered those who worked alongside us and have since moved on to other projects, states and realms. But, the story wasn't about how I was in the trenches with them, it was about their take on how it happened.

I couldn't write about how scared I was that I would screw up and make a fool of myself when I signed on to solicit volunteers. I was new to Des Moines and knew about 2 people. After recruiting them, I had to make cold calls, network like crazy, and find creative ways to get the word out about this event that was still just an idea. 

Our weekly meetings with over 30 people were chaotic but always exciting because even though none of us knew what we were doing, we were becoming family as we learned together. One planner in particular, actually became family, but more on that later😉.

Des Moines wanted to attract young adults. It had a horrible Brain Drain and it showed in the lack of activities and attractions the city enjoys today. In my quest to meet potential festival volunteers, I joined a bunch of other groups launching programs and events. Some of those include the Young Professionals Connection and Art Noir. Those groups concentrated on people ages 21-30 and was largely a mix of recent college grads from other cities who chose Des Moines to start their careers.

Every evening after work I was at a meeting for one or another of these projects. All of them were in their infancy stages so it was a lot of learning as I went. It was time consuming but I had the youth, time and energy to keep up. Plus, I met a ton of inspiring people who became some of my closest friends.

As all this was happening, another festival organizer took an interest in me. Warren was a young man from Mexico City by way of Tucson who graduated from Grinnell College, and started a nonprofit in Des Moines. He launched it a year before I met him and it was focused on empowering young Latino students. He was leading the festival's youth activities. Warren was eloquent and passionate when he advocated for his students. He lived with a bunch of other activists who were equally committed to serving the community. 

I looked forward to festival planning meetings because I knew I'd see Warren and he would invite me to events around Des Moines. Between him and his roommates, there was always something to do. I was homesick and overwhelmed so staying on the move kept me from feeling lonely and inadequate at adulting.

A few days before the festival was to take place, 9/11 changed everything. After seeing the planes hit the World Trade Center everyone was shocked. I was at work, in the storeroom surrounded by dozens of boxes of giveaways and t-shirts for the volunteers and festival guests. My boss came up to me and asked, "What's going to happen now? Are you still having the festival?" I had no idea.

A few hours later, the committee had an emergency meeting. We filled the church basement and the mood was somber. Even though we had been working nonstop for a year raising money, recruiting vendors, performers and volunteers, it felt wrong to celebrate after seeing those horrific images of what had just happened. We voted to postpone. We didn't know when it would happen, and we would lose thousands of dollars but it was the right thing to do. As we left the meeting, Warren asked if I was OK. I wasn't. I was far from home, worried about my family and like many others, felt impotent to help. 

I burst into tears and Warren hugged me so tight. I didn't feel embarrassed ugly crying in front of him. He was the first to ask if I was OK. I felt like I had someone in Des Moines who cared about me. After that, he checked on me regularly and our friendship grew.

We used the next eight months to ramp up fundraising, partnerships and planning. The time flew by. On May 24, 2002 we spent all day setting up tents, tables, chairs, flags and other decorations on the downtown bridges. We were back at it by 6am the next day, a few hours before we opened to the public. I was so nervous. I didn't know what to expect. The energy was high and everyone was excited. The bridges were a pop of color and above everything, we were glad to finally showcase what we'd worked so hard to produce. 

I have a lot of memories of that day but the one that sticks out the most that I wish I could have shared in the article is of an elder lady who approached me. I was running from one spot to another when out of the crowd this viejita stopped me."¿Organizaste esto?" She asked. "Yes, I helped organize this," I replied in Spanish. "Gracias," she said. Her eyes glistened with tears and she pointed at some teenagers. One of them was draped in the flag of the Dominican Republic.  "Those are my grandkids," she said in Spanish. "This is the first time I see them speaking Spanish in public since 9/11." The boys were laughing and teasing each other. It was clear they were having a good time. I felt so proud that I had something to do with their happiness that moment.  

The festival was the matchmaker that brought Warren and I together. If it wasn't for those regular meetings we wouldn't have developed a friendship that grew into a romance. Many of the organizers were our closest friends. We wanted to bring them together with our families out of state. We decided to have our wedding during the 2004 festival. That would force our out of town loved ones to experience what we helped create.

As life would have it, the storm that blew the festival into the river happened an hour before our ceremony so the ceremony was moved away from the festival. I would have loved to write about how Warren and I planned to incorporate Mexican and Puerto Rican wedding traditions into the ceremony so festival guests could see something unique to our cultures. The rest of my wedding day story is something for another post but Iowa's Latino Heritage Festival will always hold a special place in my heart because it made more than just history, it created my family.