The stretchy black skirts of five tango dancers whistled as the women twirled across the stage at Bo Diddley Plaza. Adorned with red flowers in their hair, the group spun and strutted to Argentinian music as dozens of Gainesville residents watched.
The tango performance was just one part of the two-week-long celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month organized by the Latina Women’s League in Gainesville. Ericka Ghersi, the 51-year-old league’s president, stressed the importance of cultural representation when the group began planning the festival in January.
“It means a lot because it’s a way of getting all together as a community,” Ghersi said.
The celebration doubles as a time for many Latin Americans to honor their countries’ independence days, as eight countries in Central and South America mark their Independence Day during Hispanic Heritage Month.
“Most of the people that we have are from Central America,” Ghersi said, “So now they are getting the chance to celebrate here with us. And not just one day, several days.”
Ghersi herself is an immigrant, moving to Gainesville from her native country Peru around 23 years ago. Initially struggling to find a sense of belonging in her new surroundings, she eventually fell in with the Latina Women’s League.
“I tried to be part of the community that was here already,” she said. “I liked it because you know, there were like 17 people my age and it was fun for me.”
Her first project with the organization was the first film festival it organized in 2004. She stuck with them as they continued doing events and worked her way up to becoming the president.
As president, Ghersi had a vision for the festival to be far grander than its previous iterations. She reached out to Carol Velasques-Richardson, the 56-year-old cultural affairs manager for the city of Gainesville, to ask if the city would be interested in helping with the festival, and Velasques-Richardson was eager to step in.
“The city of Gainesville Division of Cultural Affairs has made it their mission that they wanted the community to come together,” Velasques-Richardson said. “We want to be able to celebrate different cultures and heritages and create a sense of belongingness.”
Movies were shown at venues across Gainesville, but Velasques-Richardson wanted the kickoff performances to take place at Bo Diddley.
“We want everyone to know that Bo Diddley Plaza is your place.” she said. “It’s bringing the culture downtown. So many times you have events that it’s either West Gainesville, East Gainesville or it’s UF, so this is an opportunity for us to bring everybody together.”
Ghersi said she wants nothing more to come from the movies shown at the festival than cultural knowledge.
“It’s a very good way to start a healthy conversation,” she said, “and to be able to get to know other people, how they think and their values.”
Ana Maria Goncalves, a 36-year-old Gainesville resident originally from Brazil, attended the showing of “Coco” with her 6-year-old daughter Julia at the Headquarters Library.
“I loved that they were showing movies for kids that explored the beauty of Latin American culture and families,” she said. “I want Julia to grow up knowing about her culture and being proud of it.”
Contact Bea Lunardini at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bealunardini