Festival Latino takes root in Great Barrington | The Berkshire Eagle

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By Sharon Smullen, Eagle Correspondent

GREAT BARRINGTON — When Colombia native Liliana Ortiz-Bermudez arrived in the Berkshires 30 years ago, she thought a summer festival she attended in Great Barrington “could use some Latino flavor.”

A few years later, in 1995, Ortiz-Bermudez answered a call for participation in Lee Founders Weekend in her adopted hometown and Festival Latino of the Berkshires was born.

And now, after 23 years under a church park tent as part of the Founders Weekend celebrations, Festival Latino moves to Great Barrington, creating a ‘village” where Latinos can gather to share their cultural heritage with Berkshire neighbors of all backgrounds.

Dancers will perform, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, on the Town Hall Green and Saint James Place, with Latino DJs from near and far providing music. Children can enjoy pinatas, face painting and a bounce house, and students can practice Spanish conversation with native speakers. There will also be craft vendors, information booths and Latin American food.

On the terrace at Lucia’s Latin Kitchen restaurant in Lee, Ortiz-Bermudez, joined by volunteer Carolina Rodriguez and restaurant owner Lucia Sandoval, recalled the festival’s history.

“Latinos can dance,” Ortiz-Bermudez thought back in 1995 and so she did, first with her husband, later adding her 3-year-old daughter and a few of her daycare friends.

Using VHS tapes her mother sent, she taught the children to dance, then drew in their parents and siblings. She had a seamstress make traditional circular skirt costumes, and Ortiz-Bermudez’s husband painted colorful banners.

As the festival grew, Ortiz-Bermudez gathered practical support and sponsorship to “show how beautiful the arts are that we bring from our countries.”

Rodriguez, 36, whose Colombian family moved to the Berkshires from New York 25 years ago, organizes social services booths, “bringing education to our community so people know what is available for them,” she said.

The festival has been a big part of Rodriguez’ life.

“I grew up with the festival,” she said. “My parents always came to see Liliana dance.”

Both Rodriguez and her daughter, now 15, later danced at the festival.

“It’s a family tradition,” she said.

Dance has always been a key component of Festival Latino. Inspired by Jacob’s Pillow’s outdoor stage, Ortiz-Bermudez has presented companies from as far away as Washington, D.C.

This year, New York City-based folkloric ballet companies Calpulli Mexican Dance Company and Tumbaga Colombian Dance will bring elaborate costumes, fancy footwork and festive music to Saint James Place from 2 to 6 p.m..

Local dance troupes Berkshire Latin United, Ritmo from Williams College and Pittsfield’s Guadalupenos will perform in the park.

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For children, the Latino village will be “like a carnival,” Ortiz-Bermudez said.

From 1 to 2 p.m. at Hablemos Espanol, language students can practice with Spanish speakers led by Miss Hall’s teacher Cristina Velez. “This festival is a way to learn,” Ortiz-Bermudez said.

Latin American cuisine representing several countries will include arepas and empanadas; tacos, tamales and tostones; chuzos, chorizos and churros; plus traditional tamarind sodas.

Sandoval, a native of Ecuador, moved to the area 17 years ago.

“My passion is to cook,” she said, “I like to play with the flavors.”

At a ServSafe food preparation class 15 years ago, she told Ortiz-Bermudez she wanted to participate in the festival.

“Lucia said, `I promise you everybody’s going to love my food,'” Ortiz-Bermudez recalled.

Sandoval’s confidence was well-founded. She started a catering business that draws lines at events such as 3rd Thursday, Tanglewood and The Mount, eager to savor kabobs, chicken and vegetable fried rice, plantains and her famed “magic” green sauce.

She opened Lucia’s Latin Kitchen, in Pittsfield in 2010, recently moving it into a historic former train station on Railroad Street in Lee.

Sandoval adapts traditional recipes, combining Latino seasonings with more fresh vegetables and ingredients. “I am Latina,” she said, “I like to create something my way, but think of American people, too.”

At the annual Gala Dance After-Party at 9 p.m., at Eastover Estate in Lenox, Colombian singer John Balanta and his band Balantika will perform salsa, cumbia and merengue, with DJ Jorgy adding bachata and reggaeton.

“Everybody in Berkshire County will be there; people look forward to it,” Rodriguez said.

With such a mixed community from so many countries, she added, “We’re trying to introduce everybody to different kinds of music and dances.”

Festival Latino also helps parents introduce U.S.-born children to their Latino heritage.

“The festival feels like bringing them a little bit home,” Rodriguez said. “This is our roots.”

“It makes people proud of being Latino,” Ortiz-Bermudez added.

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