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Festival Betances celebrates Latin American culture and community history

Karen Morales
Festival Betances celebrates Latin American culture and community history
State Rep. Byron Rushing, IBA Executive Director Vanessa Calderon Rosado and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins enjoy a moment during Festival Betances.

Last week, New England’s longest running Latino festival, Festival Betances, celebrated its 43rd year in the Villa Victoria Community in the South End.

The festival’s history is rooted in triumph against gentrification and displacement and has become a weekend event where multiple Latin nationalities come together and pay homage to the Puerto Rican activist, doctor and intellectual, Ramón Emeterio Betances. The free festival was organized by Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a non-profit organization and community-building agency that played a role in Villa Victoria’s inception.

Members of Estrellas Tropicales perform during the festival.

When the festival first began in 1973, it was mainly a celebration of Puerto Rican culture and was “a little less formal with music and talent presentations mostly from the community,” said Yarice Hidalgo, Director of Institutional Advancement for IBA.

Today, the festival boasts international musicians, participants from all over Boston and guests from all over New England. This year’s musical headliners were Bohemia singer Edgardo Zayas, Grammy Award winner Jesus Pagán y su Orquesta, and salsa band 8 y Más.

Fun and games

Part of the three-day agenda featured a basketball tournament, domino tournament and a greased pole competition. Food and drink stalls were lined up, and the stage was set up at the center of plaza with plenty of room for dancing.

“Music and artistic presentation have always served as a catalyst to community organizing. Today we continue to work towards these goals and to celebrate our beautiful community and its diversity,” said Hidalgo.

The opening parade that kicked off the festivities on Friday evening was joined by members of Villa Victoria and organizations including Sociedad Latina, South End Neighborhood Church and MIT Casino Rueda Group. Local musicians and colorfully-dressed dance performers also joined the lineup and led the way from West Dedham Street, down Tremont Street and around the Villa Victoria Community streets.

Diana Ruiz, a member of MIT Casino Rueda, said that the dancing group was invited by the festival’s organizers to participate in the parade for the first time. The group, which teaches and performs the Cuban style of salsa dancing, began at MIT but is open to anyone. “We love these types of events and we love bringing something to the community,” she said.

Deep roots

Anastasia Correa, who has organized the domino tournament for the past ten years, was 9 years old when Villa Victoria was founded. She was born and raised in Boston to Puerto Rican parents and was living in the working-class area in the South End called Parcel 19.

In 1965, the Boston Redevelopment Authority intended to tear down the existing housing in Parcel 19 for a new development that the current residents would not be able to afford. “We were being burnt out of our own apartments,” said Correa. “There was no place to go.”

In response, members of the community formed IBA as a grassroots organization to take action, gather support, and save their homes. Correa’s grandmother, Paula Oyola, was among the organized residents who joined the leadership of Israel Feliciano, Rev. William Dwyer, Helen Morton and Phil Bradley. They rallied and protested at the State House and City Hall shouting, “No nos mudaremos de la parcela 19.”

In 1968, residents of Parcel 19 won control over their housing and with the help of IBA, developed Villa Victoria, a 435-unit affordable housing community designed by a Puerto Rican architect, inspired by a typical Puerto Rican neighborhood and plaza.

A couple of years later, the residents of Villa Victoria started the festival with the support from IBA, which has continued to secure sponsorship and resources for the event through the years. “We created something where people can come out, know their neighbors, enjoy the festivities, the delicious food that we have, and the music that can move your feet,” said Correa.

The festival’s evolution into a diverse celebration occurred naturally. “The festival became really popular and that’s when people recognized that we had other cultures living in the community,” said Correa. “They began to introduce themselves and their culture.”

Correa emphasized the importance of the festival as a way for Villa Victoria’s youth to learn about where they live and how they got there.

“We want to teach them where they come from and the community’s history,” said Correa. “The past is what we got…without the past, we wouldn’t be having all this.”

In addition to her role organizing the domino tournament, Correa also has helped coordinate youth fashion and pageant shows as part of the festival.

Correa said that her grandmother was her teacher, telling her all about the community’s legacy of activism and strong cultural pride, and that in turn, she wants to be the same resource for today’s kids.

“The last words she said to me were, ‘Take care of my people and take care of my community,’” said Correa of her now-deceased grandmother. “I believe that’s what I’m doing now.”