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Fiesta Latina

Hispanics, the fastest growing population in Richmond, celebrate their heritage.


Why such attention to our Spanish speaking brothers and sisters? Hispanics account for one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, growing seven times faster than the nation's population as a whole. The 2000 Census counted more than 330,000 Hispanics in Virginia. That figure is expected to double by 2015, ranking it the fastest growing ethnic group in our state. This wave of migration is no mere trickle. In the greater Richmond area alone, the population numbers about 23,000, nearly a 500 percent increase on five years. The majority of these newcomers arrived from Mexico.

The increasing number hasn't escaped the attention of people like Michel Zajur. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and former owner of his family restaurant, La Siesta, in Chesterfield County, Zajur is president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which he founded two years ago. He came from Mexico as a boy and witnessed his parents struggle to adjust to their new life. Much of the difficulty came down to one thing: the language barrier. To ensure other newcomers didn't face similar difficulties in acculturation, he established the Commerce to help families integrate into their new country.

"We build bridges to promote business opportunities with an emphasis on the Hispanic community," Zajur explains. The Commerce helps individuals start businesses and links employers to employees. A proactive organization, the group also provides legal and medical services to the community. Zajur points out that "if you only speak English, it's hard to get a lawyer if you need one, or file your taxes."

This year the organization initiated a cultural exchange tied to Mexico. This focuses on economic development, educational programs, tourism and cultural events between the two regions. With help from the Latin Ballet of Virginia, the Commerce will sponsor Ballet Folklorico of Zacatecas, Mexico, which will perform here Sept. 17-18.

Ballet Folklorica originates from the mineral rich colonial city of Zacatecas in Northern Mexico and features 16 artists performing authentic Mexican dance and music. The Ballet, begun in 1989 by dancer and choreographer Mahdi Najmi, was established as a way to celebrate contemporary Mexico, its Mayan and Aztec ancestry, and the influence of Spanish missionaries.

"I have a strong desire to share with others the beauty and joy in expressing my culture through dance," Mahdi, who recently moved to Oxnard, Calif., explains. "Dance is a way of sharing with others our history, values and the richness that our parents have given us. Dancing folklorico lets me show that I love who I am and helps others to discover this joy and pride."

If one evening of Mexican dance and music at the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month insufficiently fulfills the cultural quota, worry not. The local organization, Asociacion Hispano-Americana de Richmond, has also planned an event to recognize the cultural diversity of Richmond and promote awareness of its immigrants from the south. The group will hold its Fourth Annual Hispanic Cultural Day on Sept. 28 at Pocahontas State Park. This daylong event includes music, dance, food and crafts from Guatemala, Columbia, Argentina, as well as other countries from South and Central America. Some of the events include hands-on craft booths, children's activities, and salsa lessons for the rhythmically curious. Entertainment includes a performance by Salsa y Mas, a Norfolk-based orchestra that plays merengue, cumbia, guaracha, guaguanco and other native Latin rhythms, with singing in Spanish and English. With two stages, local groups like the Latin Ballet of Virginia, and musicians and dancers from Henrico School Center for the Arts, flamenco guitarist Charlie Moeser, and others, will also perform.

Hispanic Heritage Month ends a day after Columbus Day. For some, Columbus' politically divisive arrival on these shores marks the only day we associate with our Spanish kin. For those who care to expand their knowledge and want to partake in the pulsing beats and vibrantly colorful arts, several Richmonders are ensuring we needn't go very far. Such opportunities are likely to become more plentiful in the coming years as the Census figures show. The Hispanic influence upon our region will not be lessening anytime soon, but growing mas y mas el dia de dia. S

Ballet Folklorico takes place at the Center for the Arts, Henrico High School on Sept. 17, and Center for the Arts, Thomas Dale High School on Sept. 18. Both performances start 7 p.m. Adults: $10; children: $7. Call 378-4099.

The Fourth Annual Hispanic Cultural Day celebration will be held at Pocahantas State Park on Sept. 29 at 11 a.m. Salsa Y Mas performs at 7 p.m. Adults: $7; children under 12 free; $4 parking. Call 755-1106.

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