After a detour last year in Hoover, Fiesta returns to Linn Park this Saturday to celebrate its tenth anniversary from noon to 8 p.m.
Created in order to celebrate the many diverse cultures that make up the broader Hispanic community in Birmingham, Fiesta aims to become a staple on the order of Greek Festival for all of Birmingham’s citizens regardless of their background or heritage. Its activities will include dancing, music from local and regional bands, authentic foods from vendors across Latin America, and even soccer.
Unfortunately, many who will attend Fiesta have found that the distractions provides are more important than ever in the wake of Alabama’s political pendulum swinging dramatically rightward with HB 56.
Barby Toro, for one, knows what it feels like to have to look over your shoulder every day.
As a ten-year-old girl, Toro was one of thousands of Cuba émigrés who fled to the United States during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. She was separated from her family and surrounded by fellow desperate refugees and people who were, as Fidel Castro infamously put it, the “undesirables and scum” of Cuban society. After hopping the fence to asylum at the Peruvian embassy, Toro slept on the ground for a week before her second trip to a concentration camp and an eventual reunion with her family in Miami.
In August of 2008, Toro was afraid again. After living in Miami for nearly thirty years, she was moving to Alabama. “When I moved,” Toro says, “I did not know a soul in this state.” Then she saw an ad on television for Birmingham’s Fiesta, and decided to find out “if there even was a Hispanic community in the state.”
Fortunately for her, Toro met some of the most important people in her life thanks to that decision. “I was really, really new here, and I had no one,” she says, so “Fiesta really has a lot of emotional value to me.” She met the woman she considers her sister, who put on her daughter’s sweet sixteen party, at Fiesta. She also met friends in Birmingham’s Action Civitan Club at her first Fiesta. “I was like, ‘Oh, you’re Cuban? Hallelujah, you’re Cuban!’”
It was through those friends in the Civitan Club that Toro became connected with the Church of the Highlands, where she now serves as Dream Team coordinator at the Hispanic campus. Toro’s life story made her uniquely suited to the job; surviving through the ordeal of being a Marielito “just changed the whole way I conducted my life. It turned out I wasn’t going to die if I didn’t wash my hands.” The people she works with, regardless of their circumstances or their backgrounds, are “like my family. They’re the people that I love.”
Toro’s experience—finding friends, a job, and a sense of belonging and purpose after feeling adrift and alone—is just one of many success stories that have been a part of Fiesta’s history.
The nonprofit festival is dedicated to celebrating the various cultures that comprise the Hispanic community in Birmingham, to breaking down stereotypes about Hispanic people, and to providing a respite in politically dire times that have left a lot of people looking over their shoulders.
The most basic thing, as Toro pointed out, is that there’s a huge amount of diversity in Birmingham’s Hispanic community. Just within her congregation, there are “Cubans, Mexicans, people from El Salvador, Colombians, people from Peru.” And each country’s representatives have different heritages and cultural personalities, from talky Argentineans to Colombian who are “like the Wild Bunch, they’re crazy,” Toro says with a laugh.
In the simplest yet most resonant ways, the diversity of Birmingham’s Hispanic community shows up in its food, which is perhaps the finest aspect of what Fiesta has to offer. Cubans like Toro and her family, for instance, “don’t eat spicy stuff, we don’t eat tortillas. We eat more bread, and rice, and pork,” and these differences will be on display at Fiesta’s many national kiosks. There aren’t places in town to eat, say, authentic Peruvian or Colombian meals, so Fiesta’s bevy of samples from across Latin America is a unique treat.
Even for those in the Hispanic community most driven to assimilate into American culture, Fiesta offers some piece of home. For Toro, whose lineage goes back to Spain, it’s an important tool for passing on her heritage to her daughter; a Spanish vendor with authentic chorizo and Spanish oils illustrates what it means to be Spanish more viscerally than a token school event for Hispanic Heritage Month ever could.
“It’s something that has lots of ownership within the Latino community,” Isabel Rubio, Executive Director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, says of Fiesta. At the same time, “Fiesta is for the whole community…it’s integration by the token that people across [Birmingham] see this as a way to get out, have family fun, and learn about the different Latino communities in the area.”
Indeed, one of the biggest misconceptions about Fiesta—certainly one that plagued last year’s edition in Hoover—is that it’s only for Hispanic people to enjoy. The festival is open to everyone in the city, and one of its chief goals is to do away with stereotypes and ignorance in the most open and faithful way possible.
“They just don’t know,” says Toro of the intolerant in Alabama. “They think, ‘She’s Spanish, she has brown eyes, brown hair…she’s Mexican.’” Their ignorance becomes even more poisonous when it takes on the familiar baggage of stereotypes: “The mentality of some people is, ‘Oh, they’re illegal, or they’re lazy,’ or whatever. But they don’t know. There’s a whole hidden history behind us.”
For Rubio, a third-generation Mexican-American from Mississippi who got involved with social work because of the influence the civil rights struggle had on her childhood, HB 56 is just another setback in the latest chapter of the Civil Rights Movement. The law “calls on folks to judge people based on their physical characteristics,” specifically asking them to ignore one another’s humanity.
“Pieces of legislation like HB 56 come about because of misinformation and lack of knowledge about who people are,” she said. Fiesta, which is devoted to integrating the Birmingham community through education and celebration, “is a fabulous way to bring people together,” Rubio said.
Sadly, Fiesta has suffered from the fallout of HB 56, too. According to a volunteer at last year’s event in Hoover, several bands cancelled at the last minute due to HB 56’s almost-simultaneous authorization, and turnout was at an all-time low. “I understand why [attendance] was so low last year,” says Toro, whose family plans their schedule around Fiesta every year. “I probably wouldn’t have gone either, because I would’ve been afraid.”
With characteristic optimism, however, Toro is sure that “this year will be much better than last year.” In turbulent political times, “the signal [Birmingham] is sending by doing this is, ‘I do care about you. And I’m doing this not only for you, but for other people that might have interest.’ There’s a lot of American people that have a heart for the Hispanics… It will give a lot of people here hope that they’re not alone.”
Despite the fear it’s engendered, HB 56 has also had a unifying influence on Alabama’s Hispanic community. Since 2011, Rubio says “We’ve had…over 22 communities that have organized across the state, and I don’t know if that would’ve happened had it not been for HB 56.” As much damage as it’s caused—much of it psychological—the law, has presented an opportunity to the people of Alabama.
Toro says of her diverse congregation that in spite of their differences, “we have the one common denominator, the Holy Spirit, which makes us equal.” It’s that Christian sense of egalitarianism and grace, just as much as the specter of bigotry, which marks this struggle as the newest chapter of the Civil Rights Movement.
Birmingham, as Rubio says, “knows a thing or two about struggle and people fighting for equal rights.” The question facing the city is whether we’ll look at Fiesta as a day of asylum and escape—“just a time when you forget everything that’s happening here,” as Toro describes it—or as an opportunity to earnestly welcome the Hispanic community into the city’s fold and begin a determined solidarity.
“The whole conception of inevitability in human affairs,” the historian L.C.B. Seaman writes in From Vienna to Versailles, “is often no more than a confession of political incompetence.” Just as often, in my experience, it’s a confession of political despair. There are always choices and opportunities before us—some of them are just more subtle than others. Honestly believing that you can make a difference is the first step in seeing those choices become a reality.
Fiesta will be a great time, just like it always is. But more important than the celebration itself, more important than the irresistible osmosis of joy you get at festivals of all stripes, is the appreciation of the cultures being celebrated.
Once you see the richness those cultures add to the city’s identity, and once you see how threatened they are, you’ll see the need to get involved and take action. It might put a town once known as the City of Fear back on the path toward a future more gracious and decent than its present.
It’s a lot to hope for, but as Barby Toro could tell you, it’s never too late for hope.
Fiesta will take place on Saturday, October 13, from noon-8 p.m. Linn Park is located at 710 20th St. N. For more information on the many events Fiesta will offer, visit fiestabirmingham.com.