When the HoLa Festival kicked off 12 years ago, it was a modest affair.
"In the early years it was based on Market Square, and it was a very small event," recalls Belinda Woodbury, executive director of Hola Hora Latina, the local Hispanic cultural group that sponsors the festival. Volunteers would set up small tents offering a few traditional dishes from their home countries.
Now, Woodbury says, "It has grown to where we're expecting anywhere on the order of 20,000 people."
That's about the size of the crowd that turned out last year, when HoLa turned the 100 Block of Gay Street into a daylong extravaganza of music, food, and fashion from across the Latin American spectrum. The 2011 edition this Saturday has even more to offer.
It's relocating slightly—it will run from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. along Depot Avenue (at its intersection with Gay Street) and in the adjacent parking lot of the late, lamented Regas. Woodbury says Grady Regas is even making the restaurant building available as a staging area and dressing rooms for the assorted musicians and dancers.
"We're going to have representation from all the countries," Woodbury says, from Mexico all the way south to Chile. There will be food from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Argentina, and more. There will also be a full slate of entertainment on two stages, one for bands and the other to showcase several forms of Latin dancing. Among the performers:
• Orchestra MaCuba, a 10-piece salsa band from Atlanta.
• Abel Pena and Zulmara Torres, three-time world champion salsa dancers.
• Local 34, a Latin alternative rock band from Miami.
Local dance groups will also get their turn in the spotlight, including Salsa Knox, the Knoxville-Argentina Tango Society, and flamenco dancers. There will also be an after-party with salsa lessons and a live orchestra at the Old City Entertainment Venue, 118 S. Central St.
The star attraction for the younger set will probably be Dora the Explorer, alongside inflatable play areas and other kids' activities.
And in the middle of it all, at 2 p.m., is the Parade of Nations, which will feature natives and descendants of the various countries walking in traditional dress. Woodbury says many of the costumes and dresses are hand-sewn.
The food is likewise homemade—one thing that hasn't changed from the festival's inception. "You can call them tacos or tortas," Woodbury says, "but it's not necessarily the way you'd find them at a restaurant. It's the way you'd cook them for your children, or your mother."
Woodbury knows food is a major draw of the festival, for Latinos and non-Latinos alike, which she says is as it should be. "Food is a big thing with Hispanics," she says. "We like to have a sense of family and community, and we do that by sharing food and drinks."
Authenticity is so important to the HoLa vendors that some are even importing their ingredients. Woodbury says the Dominican Republic booth will include food being brought up this week by one local resident's family members.
The HoLa Festival is the signature event for Hola Hora Latina, but the local nonprofit group is active year-round. It has a Spanish literacy program, called Holita, that it takes to local schools, libraries, and bookstores—in some cases making sure second-generation immigrants retain fluency in the language. There are also monthly screenings of Latin American movies in the HoLa offices, on the ground floor of the Emporium Building on Gay Street. These are typically the third Thursday of each month, and are open to the public; Woodbury says the movies are subtitled in English, so you don't need to speak Spanish to come, and they are accompanied by food from the film's home country.
Hola Hora Latina also participates in the First Friday downtown arts showcases every month, presenting the works of local Hispanic artists and offering homemade snacks and sangria. Recently the group has also sponsored cooking contests, like the rice and beans competition on Market Square earlier this year.
Woodbury says all of this activity is by way of reaching out to the local Latino communities, but also to everyone else. "Our mission is to connect and build bridges," she says. "We try to keep our Hispanic audience connected with what's going on in the rest of the city."
And also, obviously, to connect the rest of the city to its vibrant, growing Hispanic population. Although still a small minority—about 3.5 percent of Knox County—it has more than tripled in size since 2000. The 2010 census showed it at 15,012, up from 4,803 10 years earlier.
Woodbury, who came to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago and whose children were born here, says the HoLa Festival is a way of celebrating both where people are from and where they are now.
"We're a very proud group of people, and we feel that our traditions have a lot of value," she says. "Even though we're all about coming to wonderful country and embracing traditions and embracing language, I think it's so important that our roots remain intact."