Mariachis and folk dancers will be among the entertainers at Somos Amigos Festival on Maui.
Hispanic group cherishes food, heritage at Maui festival
Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Silvia Naiberg grew up with many old traditions of her Spanish heritage, including preparing "hallacas," corn dough stuffed with chicken, pork or beef; leeks; green onions; olives; capers; and bell peppers, then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.
"The wonderful smell of hallacas still reminds me of Christmas when I was a little girl in Venezuela," said Naiberg. "Making hallacas was a time-consuming process, and everyone in my family pitched in to help."
As a young woman, Naiberg lived in Argentina for 12 years. She then settled in California for six years, maintaining ties to her culture through friendships she forged with immigrants from Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia and other Hispanic countries.
"We got together every two weeks to talk about music, food, religious beliefs, the way we brought up our children," recalled Naiberg. "We found that even though we came from different countries, we had many things in common besides our language."
A resident of Maui for 14 years, Naiberg experienced that wonderful camaraderie again when Enlace Hispano launched the Somos Amigos (We Are Friends) Festival in 2000.
Enlace Hispano is a department of Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., a private, nonprofit agency whose mission is to help "low-income elderly, children and youth, persons with disabilities, immigrants, other disadvantaged persons and the general public to help themselves so that they (can) become self-sufficient and enrich their lives and the life of the community."
Developed to serve Maui's fast-growing Hispanic community, which numbers about 14,000 people, or 10 percent of the island's population, Enlace Hispano's staff of three assists about 2,500 people annually through classes, direct services and outreach programs.
Naiberg, its program manager, said, "They come to us with a wide variety of questions regarding employment, immigration, health care, legal affairs, interpretation, translation and other issues they must deal with in Hawaii. We coordinate the Somos Amigos Festival to turn the tables; it's a way for the Hispanic community to answer questions and teach others about our history and culture."
ACCORDING TO Naiberg, many people mistakenly believe that anyone in the United States who speaks Spanish is "Mexican" when residents of 19 countries speak that language, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Nicaragua.
Festival-goers also might be surprised to learn that although beans are a staple of Hispanic cuisine, each country has its preference. Most Americans are familiar with the "refried" pinto beans of Northern Mexico.
"In Southern Mexico, Central America and parts of South America and Cuba, however, black beans are much more common," said Naiberg. "Red beans are eaten in some areas of Cuba and the Hispanic Caribbean, while garbanzo beans are a staple in certain sectors of South America. Depending on the country and region, beans may be served with either corn or flour tortillas and either rice or potatoes."
At the eighth annual Somos Amigos Festival on Sept. 15, you'll be able to sample a variety of bean dishes in addition to Spanish paella; Mexican tacos, tamales and quesadillas; and Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken sprinkled with cumin, paprika, lemon garlic powder, vinegar and white wine.
Vendors also will be peddling Puerto Rican pasteles (dough packets made of taro, cassava, pumpkin and green bananas or plantains and filled with seasoned pork, peppers and onions); Argentinean empanadas (flaky pastries stuffed with sweet or savory combinations of cheese, onion, tomato, corn, spinach and minced meat, chicken or fish); and "pupusas" from El Salvador (small, thick corn patties blended with cheese, beans and/or pork, then fried and topped with cabbage and salsa).
HIGHLIGHTING THE entertainment roster will be Mariachi del Pacifico from Honolulu. First appearing as strolling street musicians in the Mexican state of Jalisco in the mid-19th century, such mariachi bands play violins, trumpets and guitars to create a unique sound that combines flowing melodies and crisp syncopated beats.
"Mariachi is well known throughout the world," said Naiberg. "The songs run the gamut from love and nature to politics and popular legends. They can be humorous -- probably the most famous mariachi song is 'La Cucaracha' -- or very sad, talking about unrequited love or a dying sweetheart."
Also performing will be Samba from Brazil, Ballet Folklorico of Mexico, Espiritu Libre, Salsa Bro, Neto Peraza and Latin Music, Dr. Nat and Rio Ritmo, Lia Latin and the Mexican Folkloric Dance Group from Christ the King Church in Kahului.
It's hard to resist lively salsa, merengue and Latin pop music; wherever Somos Amigos Festival attendees are and whatever they're doing -- whether it be enjoying a bowl of sweet, rich flan or admiring a handmade colorful craft or trinket -- they invariably start dancing.
At the inaugural event in Wailuku, two stages were set up at opposite ends of Market Street. Said Naiberg, "Cesar Gaxiola, Enlace Hispano's former program manager and one of the founders of Somos Amigos, remembers how the musicians kept running back and forth, from one stage to another. In between the stages, over 200 people were dancing in the street while an enthusiastic crowd clapped and cheered all around them. Cesar told me he will never forget how fun and exciting it was to see that!"
This year, organizers expect 4,000 kamaaina and visitors to pack Maui Mall for a day of family fun.
"We have about 70 volunteers and can always use more," said Naiberg. "In recent years, students taking Spanish classes at Maui Community College, Baldwin High School, King Kekaulike High School and Kamehameha Schools have come to distribute surveys among attendees. It's a great opportunity for them to practice speaking Spanish."
Other volunteers shoot photos and videos, man the food and merchandise booths, and handle setup and cleanup chores. Said Naiberg, "Somos Amigos is a community effort that truly reflects its name: We Are Friends."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.