Waging unity against hatred, intolerance and cultural disparagement is a ritual for Karina Gasperin.
Since 2011, the Veracruz, Mexico-born Gasperin has joined her husband, Jorge Vazquez, and daughters Georgia and Maia in inviting the elegant toe-taps of Cumbia dance, the thick guitar of son jarocho music and savoriness of tamales pisques as part of the Afrolatino Festival.
She founded the festival and has stood resolute since, during its first eight years in Seattle and in Burien on Saturday, as national political rhetoric has grown more harsh and fears of violence are sadly fresh: It’s been just two weeks since a gunman, who police have said was targeting Mexicans, fatally shot 22 people in El Paso.
The act of domestic terror is believed to be the worst attack on the Latino community in U.S. history.
For Gasperin, hiding is not an option.
“This is one of the moments that are really important for the Latino community to really embrace themselves,” she said.
The festival was split into two parts this year to better attract people living on Seattle’s periphery. Saturday’s Afrolatino Festival held at Burien’s Puget Sound Park complemented an event last month in Lynnwood.
But this one followed the El Paso tragedy.
This meant stepped-up security though all prior years have been peaceful.
“If you cancel the event, you are giving reason for people to continue to do these hateful things. The festival demonstrates that we can pass through this,” said Gasperin, who opened this year’s edition on the festival stage by shifting seamlessly between Spanish and English to welcome the crowd.
The festival, which draws up to 2,000 people annually, exhibits the cultural richness of the Latino community, including its shared African lineage. Something not always widely celebrated, according to Gasperin, as the history and blending of African and Latino cultures is multifaceted.
Although it took Mexico until 2015 to recognize its black citizens, Latin American culture pulses with a strong African influence. Half of Brazil’s population is of African ancestry, according to the Pew Research Center. That is true of nearly 84% of the Dominican Republic and 15% of Panamanians.
“If I’m just standing on the corner you might think I’m African American. But I’m actually from Panama,” said Gustavo El General of his complexion.
He co-hosted Saturday with Gasperin, with the two introducing winners of the Miss Washington Latina crown and leading attendees in salsa dancing.
“When you come up and talk to me, you find out who I actually am instead of assuming. I’m proud of both my African and Latin heritage,” said El General, who has taught Latin dance since coming to Seattle 48 years ago.
But African ancestry was just one aspect of Latino identity celebrated.
Through food vendors, dance troupes and rollicking live music, the cultures of Colombia, Panama and Mexico received special foregrounding.
“It’s really important that my child is literate in both Colombian and American cultures,” said Roseanne Jezerinac, of her daughter Rosero’s shared heritage.
Saturday’s display was one Gasperin’s daughter Georgia recoiled from growing up.
“My 11-year-old self used to hate on my culture, when there’s much beauty in it,” the now 19-year-old University of Washington junior said.
A first-generation American, Georgia said her desire to assimilate into American culture and be accepted by schoolmates who teased her because of her heritage made her want to abandon it.
“For a long time I refused to respond to my parents in Spanish at home. I wanted to fit in with the kids around me,” she said of wishing she’d unabashedly wrapped herself in her culture earlier.
She cherishes it now, even as evidence of hate rises.
“I don’t think people with hateful views have increased as much as they’re more comfortable expressing it. I can feel the racism when someone’s looking at me and I’m speaking in Spanish to my mom,” she says.
Those expressions have grown in Seattle, as bias crimes reported against the Latino community swelled 43% from 2016 to 2018 according the Seattle Police Department.
Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta said constituents brought up safety concerns before the festival. But holding it, he said, attests to how much his city values inclusion.
“Our country is in a midlife crisis. Change is hard and scary. But we need to remember that we’re building our community and can’t give into fear,” said Matta, who attended Saturday with his two children.
Matta, selected as Burien’s first Latino mayor last year, found himself the target of a potential hate crime (known as malicious harassment in Washington) last year after a man threatened him at a public event.
Worry, though, was not much on the mind of Gasperin Saturday.
“I wish they would come and see what we were really about, enjoy our music and culture. Then let’s talk,” she said of people with animosity toward her community.
Talk of hate quickly evaporated as she joined a Cumbia group.
There would be too much dancing, too much food and too many smiles.