Shaken by shootings and hate, people celebrate community at Festival Latino

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It wasn’t much of a stretch for Fanny Hamilton to imagine herself inside the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, running for her life. The native of Mexico said she used to go to the border city with her father to shop.

Watching news about the mass killing there last weekend, Hamilton, who now lives in New Albany, was heartbroken.

“It was emotional,” she said. “It was memories of me being in those aisles.”

But when the sun broke brightly Saturday, and vendors and visitors began pouring into Genoa Park at the western edge of Downtown, Hamilton was ready to stand up and smile.

“You know what?” she told her husband, David Hamilton. “The worst you can do is stay home.”

The couple donned their bookend T-shirts — hers says “I heart my crazy American husband” and his, “I heart my crazy Mexican wife” — and headed for Festival Latino. The annual, two-day celebration, now in its 24th year, draws tens of thousands of visitors to the Scioto Mile for food, dancing, arts and cultural activities.

It continues Sunday from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.

Festival Latino’s proud and happy mix of people is an important contrast to the hate behind the attacks in El Paso and Dayton, David Hamilton said. Shootings in the two cities left 31 dead; investigators believe the Texas assailant targeted Hispanics.

“Everyone’s been kind of uneasy, about everything,” said Ramona Reyes, director of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center on the West Side. “Can we come together and celebrate and move on? I think that’s what everyone’s trying to do.”

Reyes has a brother who lives in El Paso; the first thing she did upon learning of the attack was to make sure he and his family were safe.

The Guadalupe center moved one of its conversation classes to the festival booth yesterday, where two participants worked to learn English and two aimed to improve their Spanish.

“We don’t talk politics,” Clintonville resident Matt Hughes said. “We just talk.”

Dale Brown, of Marion, said the festival is always a great event, rain or shine. He and his wife, Mitzi Brown, met while he was in the U.S. military in Panama, and the couple moved back to Ohio so their daughters could go to school here.

Both Mitzi and daughter Jennifer work for the Ohio Hispanic Coalition.

Dale is a safety supervisor and travels the country; he never used to worry about danger at home. “It’s always been, ‘Not in my backyard. But Dayton? That’s my backyard.”

He and several others said they want to see the rhetoric about immigration and other difficult issues toned down. “People are going to listen to the loudest voice, unfortunately,” Brown said.

Joe Mas, a local attorney who has served on the festival’s steering committee, said he’s grateful that the city has generally maintained a welcoming and accepting atmosphere. The festival is a good time to note that, he said, even as “the general climate in the country” is causing a lot of anxiety for many immigrant families.

“For all of these years, it has been a celebration of what a wonderful place Columbus, Ohio, is to settle in,” Mas said of the long-running event. 

“We’ve been able to maintain the narrative here that we’re all neighbors,” he said. “I won’t say there are no problems, but we’re all living together, celebrating each other’s cultures.”

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