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Calle Ocho Festival 2003
Stewart Mandy.
MIAMI, FL - March


It could be the streets of any major Latin American city. The rhythms of salsa and merengue are everywhere, and the smell of arepas and barbecued meat fills the air. Is it Santo Domingo or Mexico City? No, it's Miami; right here in the USA, and in a city of street parties, this is the party to end all parties. This year was the 25th anniversary of what started out as a small event, and has grown into the giant fiesta known as the Calle Ocho Festival, the grand finale to the weeklong Mardi Gras event, Carnaval Miami. Organizers were hoping for two million participants, a world record that would beat that currently held by Salvador Bahia in Brazil. At press time, it is unclear how many attended, although initial reports indicate that attendance was lighter than expected.

Not that you would guess it if you were there, with wall to wall bodies packing 23 blocks across town along Calle Ocho, ("Eighth Street") Miami's Latin heart.
Food, drink, music, and dancing are always the main attractions at the Calle Ocho Festival, and this year was no exception. The food of every Latin American nation was for sale at street vendors lining the sides of the streets, with heavy emphasis on barbecued meats, arepas, and seafood such as paella and ceviche.

Beer was the libation of choice for most, with water and juices a close second. The day was hot and steamy as only Miami can be, and it felt morel ike August than early March. The sun shone most of the day, with a few clouds providing a welcome respite from the rays. The party began at noon, and ran until 7pm, and the majority of the attendees were there for the duration, and understandably so, as once in the middle of the action, I was unable to drag myself away. On every block was something new to see, another stage performance to watch, or another food to sample.

Big names from the Latin music world performed at the various sound stages along the street, including Milly Cortejer, Tito Nieves, Elvis Crespo, and Oscar D'Leon. The attendees represented every Latin American country, in other words, a cross section of modern Miami, and they came to celebrate their heritage, eat their food, listen to their music, remember their homelands, and revel in their cultural diversity and unity. While huge, the crowd was good-natured, out to have a good time, enjoy themselves with old friends and make new ones, and while law enforcement presence was noticeable, it was not overbearing, with the city police officers joining in the party in most cases. Miami's Latin community is not always known for it's unity, with the various national groups often preferring to keep to themselves, but at Calle Ocho, they all partied together, celebrating what unites them as well as what makes them unique.

Sadly and noticeably missing from the event were the gringos, white Americans conspicuous by their absence. Was I the only Anglo at the party I wondered? Looking around at the tan skin and dark hair of most of the attendees, I could be forgiven for thinking so. In such a crowd it is hard to estimate numbers, but I would put the number of non-Latino attendees at less than 1%. While Miami is known for its Latino population, it is still home to a sizeable number of white Americans, who stayed away in their droves. Initially, I was surprised, and later, greatly saddened by this fact. Why did they stay away? I solicited opinions from a number of attendees, the consensus of opinion being that the gringos think the Latinos are too loud, and their events too disorganized. Well, the Calle Ocho Festival was certainly loud, with Latin rhythms ricocheting off the surrounding buildings, but what would be the point of a quiet street party? And the organization was smooth, again, as much as could be expected from such an event.

The lack of understanding between the Latino and Anglo communities in Miami is legendary, and sadly this great opportunity to bridge the gap, and the lack of Anglo participation only underscored this fact. If only the two communities would take the time to appreciate each other and enjoy the vibrant diversity of cultures, this amazing city would be a much better place. The 25th Calle Ocho Festival was a wonderful event, and I am proud to have spent the day on the street with the Latinos of Miami. To my fellow Anglos, I offer a challenge. See you there next time?

© Stewart Mandy 2003

About the author: Stewart Mandy
is an accomplished international freelance correspondent and travel writer, and a member of Agora International Press Corps. He has been published in various print and online publications, on a wide variety of topics including travel, hospitality, industry specific topics, and current affairs. He is always available for worldwide assignment, and all offers and story ideas will be considered. He can be reached by email at viajero@beethoven.com or via his website at http://www.travelwriter.homestead.com

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