For U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Miguel Luzunaris and his wife, Amanda, Sunday’s Latin Festival on Main Street in Columbia was more than a nice excuse to get out and see their new town.
Miguel Luzunaris, who has been deployed three times to Iraq and was transferred to Fort Jackson from Texas last week, said it was “very important” for their children to experience their parents’ native culture.
The two are Puerto Rican, and their sons, Miguel, 5, and Gabriel, 1, were born on the mainland. . The festival gave the couple a way to teach the children about their Hispanic heritage.
“It’s an easy tool to help explain things,” Amanda said. “The food we eat at home. The music we listen to.”
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The family was among an estimated 10,000 people who flocked to the festival on Sunday to enjoy Latin music, food, children’s rides and the Miss Columbia Latina beauty contest.
It was the ninth annual festival of Hispanic culture, and this year it expanded from one block of Main Street to two.
“We keep growing every year,” said Genny Padilla, a Brookland-Cayce High School graduate and New York City actress who returns each year to help her father, Genaro, put on the festival.
“It raises awareness of the growing Latino community we have here in Columbia and South Carolina,” she said. “It provides resources to those who may be new here. And it gives businesses an opportunity to see this growing community and reach out and market to them.”
In the past decade, South Carolina posted one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, and it grew at a faster-than-expected rate.
The 2010 Census counted nearly 236,000 Hispanic residents, which was 9 percent higher than recent estimates had predicted it would be, the Pew Hispanic Center reported. Statewide, Hispanics now make up 5 percent of the population.
While the most concentrated pockets of Hispanics are in the Lowcountry, Richland and Lexington counties each added about 10,000 Hispanic residents in the past decade, the 2010 Census said.
In Richland County, the 18,637 Latinos represented 4.8 percent of the population in 2010. Lexington County’s 14,529 Hispanic residents accounted for 5.5 percent of the population, according to new census data.
Festival organizer Genaro Padillo, like Luzunaris, came to Columbia via the U.S. Army. A 20-year veteran and Puerto Rico native, Padillo decided to remain here after his retirement.
He noted that many Hispanic service members like himself decide to settle down here because of the mild climate, stable economy and acceptance of the military.
“It’s a small city, less busy,” he said between cellphone calls in the lobby of the downtown Marriott. “Very friendly and the weather is great.”
Unlike many of the city’s festivals, the Latin festival, with its 11 bands, is free. Padilla said he likes to keep the party simple – mostly music and food – and keep costs down. He receives $20,000 from the city’s hospitality taxes to help put on the show, a fraction of what other festivals receive.
“I figure, it’s a public street and this is a community festival,” he said. “I don’t feel right about charging.”
That’s good enough for Roxie Dorch-Minger of Charlotte.
For each of the past four years, Dorch-Minger, who is of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, has come down to visit with friends and attend the festival.
She, too, sees it as a way to begin to teach her 2-year-old son, Caleb, about his Hispanic heritage.
“That’s part of who he is,” she said. “In order to know who you are, you have to know your background.”