WATERLOO — Angela Weekly strummed the air guitar and welcomed audience members to dance with her at the RiverLoop Amphitheatre on Saturday as “La Bamba” blared from the speakers.
Some wore traditional, colorful attire to represent their Latino heritage, children wore face paint and whacked at piñatas, and many stood in line for a taste of authentic Latino American food, including tacos and mango on a stick, from area vendors.
“Fiesta! A Celebration of Latino Heritage” has been a family-oriented event honoring the Cedar Valley’s vast Latino population for more than seven years. Typically, the event was in May to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, held on May 5, a celebration that originated in Mexico.
This year, the event commemorates National Hispanic Heritage Month, the period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 in the United States, when people celebrate and recognize Hispanic and Latino Americans’ contributions, histories and cultures.
“We think that this is more inclusive, and it allows us to celebrate Latino heritage from all the different countries,” said Elizabeth Andrews, an employee with Waterloo Center for the Arts, which supports the event, sponsored by Veridian Credit Union.
Andrews works in collections management at the art center, which displays pieces of Latino American artwork, including woodcarvings and textiles.
Angela Weekley, a Veridian employee and volunteer for the company’s community inclusion department, runs many of the outreach events.
“We want to make sure we’re representing all of the people living in the communities that we serve,” she said. “We seek out opportunities to sponsor Latino events, African-American heritage events, immigrant events ... to make sure we are a resource in all of the communities we serve.
Rosario Garcia Fino, adorned in a light blue and white traditional dress, danced a typical dance, El Sanjuanero, of her native country, Colombia. She has been living in Iowa for four years and moved here as an international student at the University of Northern Iowa.
She’s also a bilingual sexual assault advocate at Riverview Center in Waterloo. The organization helps marginalized populations with emergency care, including the Cedar Valley’s LGBTQ, Congolese, Burmese and Bosnian communities. Garcia Fino said the organization sees at least 2,000 clients a year.
“It’s for everybody,” she said. “Every American, nationality, we don’t care, they come as they are. ... If they are a survivor, we are going to help them.”
She said the organization is important “because we are underrepresented here ... it’s really difficult to find people that speak your language and that understand your culture.”
Garcia Fino said times are getting tougher for the underrepresented members of her community, including Latino Americans.
“It’s sometimes difficult for us internationals living here,” she said, “but I love Iowa.”
Hailing from Colombia’s capitol, Bogota, she said she enjoys the slower pace of the Midwest.
“(Bogota) is a huge city, and here it is a small metropolis,” she said.
Nilvia Brownson represented the League of United Latin American Citizens, at the event. The national organization promotes civil rights for Latinos in the U.S., and encourages residents to vote in elections.
“Voting is important, especially in underserved communities,” Weekly said.
Brownson said the nonpartisan organization is the oldest Latino organization in the United States. The Waterloo chapter was recharted and approved as a nonprofit group this year.
Brownson grew up in New Hampton and launched Dream Iowa, an advocacy group for immigrants, with her sister. Through their work, she discovered LULAC and is currently the group’s interim president.
“We want the Latino community to know that we are here advocating for them,” Brownson said.
A Vintage 2017 population estimate on the United States Census Bureau’s website said Waterloo has about 67,500 residents, and 6.2 percent are Latino American.
The band, 3 Letras, of Des Moines serenaded the crowd, and the day ended with a showing of Pixar Animation Studios’ “Coco” at the RiverLoop, presented by Community Bank & Trust.
“It’s really a cool way for them to connect with the heritage,” Andrews said.