With a whirlwind of music, dancing, food, and more, thousands of people celebrate the inaugural Muskegon County Latino Festival

Grupo Folklorico dancers entertain the crowd at the inaugural Muskegon County Latino Festival. Photo by Pat ApPaul

As Connie Navarro walked before the crowd at the Muskegon County Latino Festival, wearing a serape de la Virgen de Guadalupe for the cultural fashion show, the cheers for her were almost deafening—and the 75-year-old Navarro, who spent her childhood traveling from Texas to Michigan to work in the fields with her family, lifted her head, tears of joy and pride welling in her eyes.

Of the many powerful moments during the festival held this past Saturday at Hackley Park in downtown Muskegon, this was one that was especially poignant—a moment filled with the echoes of decades upon decades of love and joy and family and sacrifice. Connie Navarro, who grew up in Texas and whose family is from Mexico, and her husband, Angel Luis Navarro, 80, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States as a child, met while working in Michigan’s fields. After falling in love and marrying here, they went on to raise their family in Michigan—and the couple in 1991 launched the nonprofit that organized this weekend’s festival: Latinos Working for the Future. Following its inception nearly three decades ago, the organization would go on to do everything from raise scholarship money for area children to hold dances for community members, but as the Navarros grew older, they became unable to take on the immense workload that accompanied running such a group.

After a couple of years of the nonprofit being dormant, three women from Muskegon—Angelita Valdez, the Navarros’ daughter; Elizabeth Briseno; and Ana Olson, who owns Los Amigos Mexican Bar and Grill—decided to breathe new life into the group that has played a deeply crucial role in the area’s Latino community. Now, the Navarros’ organization lives on—and the joy it brought to Hackley Park on Saturday was palpable.

“For me, to keep my parents’ legacy alive while they’re living, to make them proud, it means everything,” said Valdez, a behavioral health therapist and the CEO of Servicios de Esperanza, a Muskegon-based organization that provides bilingual therapy, substance abuse counseling, and play therapy to families and children. “For them to see that turnout and have them bear witness, it makes me cry. This is because of all the hard work they did.”

Connie Navarro, far right, is joined by Janie Santos, Lupe Cortez, and Beatrice Walter during the cultural fashion show. Photo by Anna Gustafson

The brain child of Briseno, the festival drew somewhere around 4,000 people to Hackley Park, the organizers said, and the event was a powerful celebration of Latino culture and the local Latino community. The day featured a whirlwind of traditional outfits, live music, dancing, a cultural fashion show, food from throughout Latin America, children’s activities, and more.

“It was a great day, and there was so much love and support,” Valdez said in an interview on Sunday. “There were people who came from all over: Muskegon, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Holland, and Grand Rapids. It really motivated us. We know Muskegon is ready to be inclusive.”

That word ‘inclusive’ is an important one for the organizers: it’s emblematic of a festival that provided a safe space for people to feel proud of, and celebrate, Latino culture. That, the organizers emphasized, is important at any time, but especially now, when Hispanic Americans and immigrants have been the targets of racist rhetoric and policies from U.S. President Donald Trump.

“For the Spanish-speaking community to feel welcomed, and feel they’re part of the community, is so important,” Valdez said. “There’s been a lot of negativity in the media, with the president’s statements and policies. There’s been a lot of anxiety and fear for the last few years with the Latino population. [At the festival], folks could know they belong here and that it’s OK to come out.”

Grupo Folklorico dancers at the Muskegon County Latino Festival this past Saturday. Photo by Pat ApPaul

Briseno too emphasized this.

“There’s a fear people have when they leave their house or drive to their children’s school that ICE [U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] might come,” she said. “That’s a big fear for people here in Muskegon County. They have that fear every time they walk out of their home.”

But, as Valdez and Briseno explained, the festival was a place where individuals could not only feel safe, but joyful as they spent time with family and friends. The entire day was an uplifting and important celebration of Latin American culture and Latin Americans feeling welcome in the community, with the event too serving as an ally to organizations working with the local Latino population, Briseno said. About 30 community organizations participated in the festival and provided resources and literature that aimed to both inform and empower those at the festival.

The festival too drew numerous individuals from outside of the Latino community, with people from a wide variety of backgrounds gathering to support and meet their Latino neighbors.

“We thought, this is the first one, and it’s only three organizers, so maybe 500 people will come,” Valdez said. “And then the donations kept coming in and coming in, and we said, ‘If we’re getting all these donations, this event will be free and open to the community.'”

“We never in a million years thought it would be that big, and we’re so humbled everyone came out,” Valdez continued.

Members of the cultural fashion show. Photo by Pat ApPaul

Now that the inaugural festival is over, Latinos Working for the Future members are focusing on their next event: the Ballet Nepantla’s performance of “Valentina” at the Frauenthal Center on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 6pm. Fusing contemporary ballet with Mexican folkloric dance, the production tells the story of the strength and resilience of women during the Mexican Revolution.

For the performance, Latinos Working for the Future are giving away 1,000 free tickets to youth who are 18 years old and younger, and college students can receive half-priced tickets. The free and discounted tickets may be picked up at the Frauenthal’s Box Office (425 W. Western Ave.), at Los Amigos (1848 E. Sherman Blvd.), or at Servicios de Esperanza (1061 South Getty St.). Regular admission for adults may be purchased online or at the Frauenthal Box Office.

“We’re very fortunate to have this ballet coming to Muskegon,” Valdez said. “We’re doing 1,000 free tickets for youth 18 and under because we want to educate them and give them exposure to culture.”

Additionally, Latinos Working for the Future will hold an informational meeting about their organization and volunteering opportunities on Monday, Oct. 14 from 6-7pm at Los Amigos. For more information about that meeting, please click here.

Dancers wow the audience. Photo by Pat ApPaul

As the nonprofit evolves and grows, it will further work to partner with fellow community organizations on matters of health, Spanish language translation, and more, Briseno explained.

“We’re trying to provide the resources no one else is in Muskegon County,” she said. “We’re looking to build community.”

After Saturday’s festival, there is no doubt: community is being built.

“Muskegon is ready for Latin experience and culture,” Valdez said. “Muskegon County is inviting us to the table.”

For more photos by Pat ApPaul, please click on the slideshow below.

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Photos by Anna Gustafson are in the slideshow below.

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Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Photos by Pat ApPaul, unless otherwise noted. A documentary photographer from South Wales, United Kingdom, Pat is now based in Muskegon. Pat’s work can be found at www.PatApPaul.com, and he can be contacted by emailing Pat.ApPaul@gmail.com. 

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