By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa
Des Moines was different in 2000. There was no Wells Fargo arena, very few taco trucks, and no festival celebrating Latino culture and contributions. JoAnn Mackey, a state employee at the Division of Latino Affairs, wanted to change that. She began floating the idea of a Latino Heritage Festival to anyone who would listen. “I was knocking on doors and talking to everyone.” Des Moines was on the cusp of change and it was the right time to propose such a big idea.
The first meeting took place in a church basement, attracting almost three dozen people, “the second one had nearly twice as many,” recalls Mackey. None of the volunteers had event planning experience or had organized a festival before. It might have turned into chaos, but she divided everyone into committees with individual meetings to keep things progressing. True to Latino values, it was a family affair. Mackey’s daughters and grandson, only eleven years old, took on leadership roles. “Chris, my grandson, has been involved from the start. He was always there helping me organize, chart out the booths, doing all the techy stuff.” Chris, now 32, still volunteers behind the scenes with administrative and accounting tasks. “I look forward to seeing everyone have a good time at an event we worked all year to create.”
After a year of meetings, booking bands, and raising over $50,000, the first festival was scheduled for September 15, 2001. Then, the Tuesday before the festival would take place, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The country went into shock as unimaginable images of destruction flooded the media. Mackey called an emergency meeting where the committees unanimously decided to postpone the festival. “The governor (Vilsack) called and congratulated me for canceling the festival. He appreciated that we were sensitive to what our country was going through.” The new date was set for May 25, 2002.
Mackey and the rest of the volunteers took those eight months to regroup and get the word out. It was important to make sure all Latino cultures were a part of it. As the fastest-growing ethnic group in the state, Latinos come from over twenty countries across North, Central, South America and the Caribbean. Organizers wanted everyone to feel included and celebrated. “Participation from the community was exciting. They wanted to be seen,” says Mackey. “It was the first statewide event celebrating our cultures and heritage,” adds Enrique Peña, the inaugural festival MC.
The first Latino festival was one-day on the Locust and Court Avenue bridges in downtown Des Moines. Organizers anticipated two to three thousand attendees from across Iowa. Instead, nearly ten thousand people came, some from other states. The day was filled with music, dancing, food, and nearly every Latin American country had a tent filled with artifacts and representatives dressed in traditional clothing. The scene filled downtown with a feeling of belonging. The country was healing from a massive show of hate, and it had been a tense year. Racially motivated crimes against people of color had risen and Iowans were not immune. The bright colors of the flags and people in clothing from their ancestral countries created an electric, vibrant, joyous energy. “Elders came up to me, Enrique, and JoAnn and thanked us,” recalls Joe Gonzalez, the current executive director of Latino Resources, Inc, the nonprofit entity that produces Iowa’s Latino Heritage Festival. Gonzalez was an original founding organizer who oversaw security for many years. He used his connections as a Des Moines police officer to recruit other officers to keep everyone safe. His participation was part of HONRA, an outreach effort Gonzalez created within the force to develop positive relationships between DMPD and the Latino community. In 2013, after an accident while working security as an off-duty officer almost killed Gonzalez, he retired from the force and a year later took over the planning and execution of the festival. “He was excited and passionate about the festival and the community,” says Mackey, who chose Gonzalez as her successor, “You want someone like that leading this event.”
The festival has overcome some challenges. In 2004, the year the festival was supposed to host the wedding of two of its founding organizers who met and fell in love while planning the first festival, an unexpected storm swept through, blowing many cultural artifacts into the river. It caused an emergency shutdown and some injuries from flying debris. Flooding and construction forced the festival to move locations several times. It’s been on the Southridge Mall grounds, and at the Blank Park Zoo where guests had full access to the zoo with their $5 admission price. It’s had some wonderful highlights as well. “My daughters remember meeting Dora the Explorer. They were so excited because they watched her on TV every day,” recalls Peña. Crowds also enjoyed Lucha Libre, pony rides, Aztec dancers, low riders, parades of children dressed in traditional clothing, and even a petting zoo.
It has grown into a two-day event and is the largest ethnic festival in Iowa. That level of growth requires a lot of fundraising. “When I first took over, I had to raise a little over $90,000,” recalls Gonzalez. “Today that’s increased to three times as much. Tents alone are over $40,000 and nearly ten thousand for generators. It costs between $12,000 and $15,000 for stage and sound, another $15,000 for entertainment.” That doesn’t include trash, which went up $5,000 in 2022 when the festival hired Recycle Me Iowa to be more environmentally conscious. There is also the cost of insurance, licenses, security, portable restrooms, permits, fencing, water, and other things that ensure the space is safe, well-kept, and comfortable for thousands of guests. “People always ask why we charge an entrance fee when other festivals don’t. It creates unrestricted funds that go back into the community,” explains Gonzalez. It is the only festival that donates at least $25,000 a year towards programs and scholarships. From the beginning, the festival wanted to be of the community, for the community. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and Latinos fled the south for Iowa, the festival helped with their relocation costs from those unrestricted funds. “Sponsors have been loyal but provide funds for specific parts of the festival,” explains Gonzalez. The entrance fees, which haven’t increased since the first festival over twenty years ago, help keep costs down for vendors as well, allowing smaller family-owned businesses to participate. “The public doesn’t realize how much it costs. It’s nerve wracking to raise more and more money every year. You never know when sponsors might pull funding. Entrance fees pay deposits for next year, help with crowd control and keep things safer with an enclosed space,” says Gonzalez. “In an ideal world, if I could find major sponsors to commit for years to come, I would make it free. The caveat is that we won’t have unrestricted funds to help the community the rest of the year.”
Today, the committees are run by board members who also oversee the governance of the organization, including planning for its future. Its goals include keeping the festival affordable and accessible for guests and vendors, always being family-friendly, and bringing something new every year. Some of those new features include roving musicians, youth performers from various Latin American countries, and partnerships. This year the festival teamed up with the Des Moines Music Coalition to bring Cuban jazz musician Alfredo Rodriguez on September 21 to kick-off festivities with a concert at the Temple for Performing Arts. The music line-up for Saturday and Sunday is robust with salsa, merengue, hi-energy dance music, and Bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican dance from the 1400s. “Seems like every year we have to make the dance floor bigger and bigger. That’s a good problem to have,” chuckles Gonzalez. Through it all, one thing remains true; the festival brings together communities and culture.