Festival de la Familia highlights Latinos' growing presence

04/30/2012 12:00 AM

12/11/2012 2:44 PM

Saara Bruga, a Brazilian from the Amazon, was at a Sacramento salsa club when she eyed a tall Peruvian.

"The first time I saw him I said, 'I'm going to marry you,' " said Bruga, director of Sacramento's Brazilian Center. "He was with a lady when I told him, 'You're mine,' and showed him some moves."

Paulo Bruga – then a new immigrant from Peru who spoke no English when he arrived in Sacramento eight years ago – recalled his capture with a smile as he, his wife and 7-year-old son soaked in Sunday's Festival De La Familia.

The flavors, dialects, dances and styles of 21 nations filled Cal Expo, reflecting the Sacramento area's growing Latino population.

If you hear Spanish spoken wherever you go, don't be surprised: 20 percent of the region is Latino, according to new census data.

More than 434,000 Latinos from two dozen nations live here, a tremendous jump since 2000. They include Peruvian air force pilots, Colombian businesswomen and Salvadoran cooks.

Eight of 10 Latinos here are Mexican. But there are now 19,400 Central American immigrants, whose numbers have tripled in the past decade. Of those, 9,000 trace their roots to El Salvador, while Nicaragua and Guatemala each claim about 3,500 area residents.

Another 12,000 Sacramento-area Latinos are of Puerto Rican ancestry, up 70 percent from 2000. Many left that island's depressed economy for construction jobs.

Roughly 8,400 of the region's Latinos have South American ancestry, including 2,500 from Peru and 1,900 from Columbia.

They sometimes have trouble decoding each other's dialects, said Sacramento's Mexican Consul General, Carlos González Gutiérrez.

"Colombians speak very slowly and clearly," he said. "They say they speak the correct Spanish, while Chileans drop the "s" and speak very fast – 'Costco' becomes 'Coco.' "

Cubans also don't pronounce the "s" and speak even faster; people from the Caribbean speak fast, too, he said.

Juliana Campo, a UC Davis student from Colombia, hears the differences at the taco truck.

"We say 'FREE'-hol-es,' while Mexicans say 'fri-HOL'-es.' "

Campo, 22, said Argentinians have more of a singsong style and use the word "Che" for "dude."

Virtually all Spanish slave ships bound for South America landed in Colombia. Today, Colombia's Pacific Coast reflects African roots and traditions while the Caribbean side is more mixed and indigenous, Campo said.

Despite differences in class, dialect and race, Mexicans and other Latinos get along pretty well in Sacramento, González Gutiérrez said.

"I have not seen a single instance of discrimination based on national origin," he noted.

Thousands of South and Central Americans have flowed into Mexico in recent years, some settling down, others heading to El Norte. Last year Mexico liberalized its immigration laws, making it easier for foreigners to stay, González Gutiérrez said.

It is no longer a crime to be in Mexico without papers, he said.

"It's our obligation to treat them the way we want the U.S. to treat Mexican immigrants."

Mexican and Central American immigrants share a common bond because they all left their homes and families behind in hopes of gaining access to justice, health care and education, he said.

Central Americans fled wars, corruption and poverty that ravaged their nations, said Edgar Calderon of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber.

"We all come looking for freedom," he said.

There's a lot of national pride – especially during the World Cup soccer tournament – but once you're in the United States, "we are all Latinos," Calderon said.

The new Central Americans include Eda Guevara, 42, and her daughter Katherine, 19, Salvadoran immigrants who moved here from Los Angeles 10 years ago to find cheaper housing and a more relaxed pace.

"We're very friendly, but aggressive; we go after what we want," said Katherine Guevera. "I want to open a restaurant – my mom makes great pupusas."

Pupusas – thick Salvadoran tortillas stuffed with beans, cheese and various meats – drew long lines Sunday.

Cultural fusion kicked into high gear during the Bachata Dance Competition. Contestants with Mexican, Brazilian, Cuban and Puerto Rican roots whirled to the sensual dance from the barrios of the Dominican Republic.

"Salsa's more technical, Bachata's more free flow," said Natalia Lucero of Sacramento, whose daughter, Rosalinda, 17, moved gracefully to the guitar-driven beat.

Puerto Ricans here tend to be younger than other Latinos – their median age is 26. About 43 percent own their homes here, compared with 57 percent of South Americans, whose median age is 34.

About 30 percent of Puerto Rican households with children are headed by single parents, compared with 17 percent of Mexican households with children.

Mexican and Central Americans fall in the middle of the economic spectrum: about 46 percent own their homes. They tend to have larger families. Mexican and Central American households average 3.5 people, compared with 2.8 in Puerto Rican and South American households.

Immigrants from Honduras and the Dominican Republic did arts and crafts with children of all races.

"The cultures and music are totally different," said Monica Sepulveda, a Dominican immigrant who moved here last month.

"I was afraid when I got here," she said. But Dominicans are "super happy, very welcoming people" she said she has been treated in kind by other Latinos.


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