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Thousands flock to Conga Caliente to celebrate Latino cultures

TAMPA

Dominican singer Milly Quezada was hitting her stride in a merengue song as 3,500 or so swayed rhythmically side to side, waving flags from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia.

Impromptu dances broke out. Young couples, grandparents and children.

The common tie of the throngs crowding Al Lopez Park on Sunday afternoon wasn't their age or country of origin, but the fact they had all come to celebrate Latin American culture.

So on the stage, as the warm afternoon waned, merengue was followed by salsa music and bachata by bolero.

Welcome to Conga Caliente, an annual party where Latin American cuisine, art and, of course, music are celebrated in a spirit of unity.

"I try to attend every year," said Monique Perez, 51, of Tampa, who came with her husband and grandchildren. "Here, everybody comes together. It's about unity. We are all different but we are all together."

By way of example, she pointed to her family. Perez is from Ecuador and her husband, Ruben Perez, 52, was born in the Dominican Republic. Both grew up in New York City, where they met and married before moving to Tampa. Their daughter-in-law, Jackie Matos, is Puerto Rican.

"Somehow it works out," Perez said. "Like the festival."

Organized in 2004 by Tampa production company Coda Sound Inc., Conga Caliente was meant to be a one-time affair. But when organizers were overwhelmed by crowds — about 20,000 showed up instead of an anticipated 1,500 — Conga Caliente was made an annual event.

Organizers estimated that about 40,000 people came and went during the seven-hour event.

The highlight of the festival played out on stage, where popular Latin acts performed throughout the afternoon.

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In addition to the Grammy-nominated Quezada, the "Queen of Merengue," bolero singer Álvaro Torres from El Salvador and merengue group Oro Solido also performed.

At the back of the park, crowds lined up about 20 deep to purchase heaping plates of roast pork, rice and beans, and fried plantains .

Children ran through the crowd with inflatable toys, bashing each other. Older couples relaxed in chairs and on benches. A row of artists sold images of Caribbean life.

"We like it. This is the best one. It's more organized," said Rocio Vallejo, who came with her husband, Gabriel, and their 24-year-old son, Robert. "We like that you can see many different cultures, but it's the same. Sometimes the food is the same (from one country to another), but the name is different."

Suddenly, as the festival was ending, an impromptu party erupted. Three men drew a crowd near the gate when one started playing conga drums. Then a man with a cow bell chimed in and another on castanets joined them.

As the sun set, the men tried to stop playing but the crowd wanted more. Little by little the party resumed. First the congas, then the cow bell then the castanets. Soon the crowd was jumping in unison.

"I'm not sure what they're saying," said one woman. "They're just having fun."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

Thousands flock to Conga Caliente to celebrate Latino cultures 11/04/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 4, 2012 10:44pm]
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