Santa Rosa festival celebrates Latino heritage

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Maximiliano Calleja, clad head-to-toe in green, red and white, stood outside the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts on Sunday afternoon, holding a Mexican flag in each hand and ready to move into the midst of hundreds of other revelers.

Calleja, a 33-year-old native of Puebla, Mexico, who lived in Santa Rosa for more than a decade, now works as a chef in New York City. He was back in town to see family and to go with them to the 10th annual Fiesta de Independencia, a prominent celebration marking Mexico’s independence from Spain and the start of Latino Heritage Month.

The event was expected to draw about 4,000 to 4,500 people over the course of the day, which brought warm temperatures and sunny skies, unlike Monday morning’s forecast. It calls for possible showers before 8 a.m.

“It represents my people, my culture,” Calleja said about the festival while scanning the crowd. “I’m proud to be Mexican and proud of my roots.”

The fiesta began with a drum performance by Elsie Allen High School students at 1 p.m., followed by a series of presentations and performances, including a traditional dance display.

Attendees chomped on corn, munched on bowls of fruit and sipped smoothies from food vendors while exploring the grounds, featuring dozens of booths advertising local businesses and community services.

Melanie Weir, the education and community engagement manager for the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, said the family-friendly celebration is one of the largest in Northern California. She said it offers a mix of cultural learning and entertainment.

“We want everyone to learn they’re valuable, whether they’re a kid or an immigrant or third-generation,” she said.

Not five minutes later, an awestruck youngster gaped from his perch in a stroller as he was pushed past a row of booths. His eyes, and those of a few hundred others watching from under a nearby tent, were fixed on dancers who tapped their way around a large stage with the help of a vibrant horn riff and some tumbling percussion.

Behind the tent, a handful of students and their teachers stood behind a ring of flags and displays representing Mexican states and Central American countries, preparing to share their knowledge with the crowd.

Mexican imagery dominated the day, but Ricarda Suarez, a 14-year-old sophomore at Roseland University Prep, was getting ready to talk about Honduras, a sign of the Latino event’s diversity and broader focus.

“This is really a celebration of where we came from,” Ricarda said. “These are our people, you know?”

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