Chesco group celebrates entire Hispanic culture

Gustavo Arroyo, Berenice Olvera (center), and Blanca Muñoz tally the votes in the Señorita Cinco de Mayo competition. The winner is to be crowned at this month's event.
Gustavo Arroyo, Berenice Olvera (center), and Blanca Muñoz tally the votes in the Señorita Cinco de Mayo competition. The winner is to be crowned at this month's event. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 04, 2014

KENNETT SQUARE The Cinco de Mayo festival in Kennett Square started in a parking lot.

Behind the library, a few representatives from local nonprofits sat at tables and pushed their good causes to the few hundred who showed up.

On Sunday, 13 years later, at least 15,000 are expected to crowd the Chester County borough for this year's festivities, now held on Kennett Square's main street.

The festival, which commemorates the Mexican army's victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, has become a streetscape of colorful costumes, foods, and music, and it is in the throes of a transition, just like the group that organizes it.

The members of Casa de las Culturas (House of Cultures) want the event that they spend months planning to be about more than Hispanic families getting together for a good time.

"We want to focus on cultural arts and education, and connect the larger community with the strong Hispanic presence in the area," said Arturo Gomez-Rubio, the group's president.

So this year's event includes an education tent in which representatives from 10 local colleges will meet with prospective students. A small-business tent will connect banks and vendors with entrepreneurs seeking to start their own businesses. A multicultural tent will be the site of discussions on issues such as recycling, nutrition, and great books.

Casa de las Culturas is hosting the festival in a borough where the number of Hispanic residents doubled from 1,470 in 2000 to 2,963 in 2010, an increase from 28 to 49 percent of the municipality's population. The demographic transformation is a product of the migration of Mexicans to work on area mushroom farms.

The leaders of Casa de las Culturas have adapted their mission to serve that community and its neighbors. A focus on preserving Mexican traditions has given way to a new effort to use arts, culture, and education to improve and connect communities.

The organization began about 10 years ago as an extension of an informal group started by Sergio Carmona. The Kennett Square tax preparer moved to the area from Mexico in 1984 to pick mushrooms.

"People were always listening to the negative things being said about Hispanics," Carmona said. "We wanted to show the world that we have culture and something to share."

The small group of friends put on events such as a Mexican Independence Day celebration in Nixon Park, but the group disbanded.

Community activist Kathleen Snyder of West Chester and pastor Juan Carlos Navarro of Kennett Square took over from there.

They transformed the group into Casa Guanajuato, named for a state in north-central Mexico where many area farmworkers were born. The group was one of several Casa Guanajuato groups throughout the country and once received financial support from the Mexican state.

"When I came here 20 years ago, [many farmworkers] had only three years of elementary school. They didn't have any idea of how to read or write," said anthropologist Laura Gonzalez of Kennett Square, an associate researcher at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who studies migration from Guanajuato.

"Today these workers have children and grandchildren who are going to college, and becoming accountants and teachers," she said. "But the community is still very young" compared with other Latino enclaves around the country.

Guanajuato officials eventually broke off ties with the group as government finances tightened. During the last several years, with Gomez-Rubio at the helm, the group began reevaluating its mission and changed its name.

The long-term goal of Casa de Las Culturas is to build a multicultural center in the area.

"A lot of people see Mexicans as these hard workers," said Snyder, who was born in Mexico City. "But we're also musicians and painters and have many other talents."

"We're more than a pair of hands," Gomez-Rubio said.

That is the message the group aimed to share with the teenage girls who participated last month in the SeƱorita Cinco de Mayo competition at the Avondale Fire Hall.

Six teens showed off their knowledge of Mexican history, performed a talent, and modeled a costume that reflected their heritage. Casa de las Culturas sponsored the contest.

Monica Mata-Lopez, 17, a junior at Kennett Consolidated High School, made a short speech about Benito Juarez, the 19th-century Mexican leader, and won.

"I feel amazing representing my culture," Mata-Lopez said. "It's such a fun way to learn about your roots."

Mata-Lopez was crowned that night. She will be crowned again Sunday.


BY THE NUMBERS

15,000

people expected to attend the festival Sunday.

1,470

Hispanic residents in Kennett Square in 2000.

2,963

Hispanic residents in Kennett Square in 2010.

28

percentage of Kennett Square residents who were Hispanic

in 2000.

49

percentage of Kennett Square residents who were Hispanic

in 2010.

SOURCE: 2010 census


kholmes@phillynews.com610-313-8211

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