PINELLAS PARK — The inaugural Pinellas Park Latin Festival featured plenty of eating and dancing — and so much more for long-time residents like Carmen Molinelli.
The event Sunday in England Brothers Park was also a time to recognize the many Latin cultures that help define Pinellas County.
“Not everybody knows about how large and diverse our Latin community is here,” said Molinelli, CEO of ENC Productions, the group that launched the festival. “America is our home, we’re American too. But we’re trying to create more opportunities to preserve all the richness of our cultures for our children especially, because they don’t have as many opportunities to learn about the Hispanic culture.”
Despite intermittent summer showers and temperatures that reached 91, children were all smiles as they filtered through pony rides, bungee jumping stations, rock climbing walls, carnival games, bouncy houses and a NASA-like orbital ride.
Around 1990, only 1.5 to 2 percent of Pinellas County’s population was of Latin descent. The numbers grew with the economic boom and the need for labor in the early 2000’s and reached 8 percent at the time of the 201 Census — about 73,000 people. Most of them are of Mexican or Puerto Rican heritage.
Much of the community is concentrated in Clearwater, with about 15,000 people, but the numbers have grown as well in Pinellas Park, with about 5,000 people of Latin heritage, 2010 Census figures show.
Sunday’s festival was meant to be the first of more culturally diverse community events, said Edward Quinones with the Hispanic Caucus of Pinellas County and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
While the number of Latinos immigrating to the county has slowed in recent years with the economy, the Latin population remains the fastest growing in Florida at about 23 percent, Quinones said.
Latin Americans are an increasingly important voting block, which explains why politicians seeking election and lobbyists for a cause targeted Sunday’s festival.
Groups including GreenLight Pinellas moved among the food and crafts booths, talking to festivalgoers about the proposed transit expansion and one-cent sales tax hike that will appear on the general election ballot Nov. 4.
Representatives from Awake Pinellas also circulated petitions to send to U.S. Rep. David Jolly, the Pinellas Republican, supporting a bill that would ensure children entering the country illegally and on their own would have access to lawyers to avoid deportation.
Festivalgoer Jose Jimenez welcomed an event so close to home and where he and his family could celebrate their heritage. Clad in the green, white and red of the Mexican flag were Jimenez, his wife Silvia Villasenor and his four children, 11 months to 13 years old.
Jimenez immigrated from Mexico about 19 years ago to put up a home that was “safe, comfortable and secure,” he said. Earlier this year, Habitat for Humanity built the family a unique solar-powered house — on a lot just a block away from the festival.
“It was very hard to leave Mexico,” Villasenor said, “because it’s like you’re leaving your heart behind. ...
“Sometimes we don’t get accepted in this country, but it’s our job to make them accept us by being good neighbors, good coworkers and a good family.
“We have everything here we could ever dream.”