Nearly 20,000 people attended the ninth Salvadoran-American Festival, a celebration Sunday in Hempstead Village where people strutted to spirited Latin music and ate ethnic foods such as flavorful skewered and roasted meats.
Organizers held the annual event to bolster the connection between Salvadoran-Americans and Salvadoran culture. The visitors, many proudly donning the Salvadoran national colors of blue and white, illustrated the growth of the Salvadoran community on Long Island.
Alejandra Sorto and her family came to America from El Salvador three years ago after gang members in her native town of San Miguel extorted her family's advertising business. Sorto, 27, is the organizer of the nonprofit Long Island Civic Engagement Table. She and six other group members presented a clipboard to visitors and encouraged naturalized citizens to register to vote. She said she wants to help fellow Salvadoran immigrants find opportunities in America.
"I got to see poverty, violence, every problem my country faces and then I come here and see the problem they face by being immigrants, by being undocumented," said Sorto, a Massapequa resident. "That's hurtful because I got to see up close what leads a person to leave their country."
There are 95,000 to 104,000 Salvadorans on Long Island, according to the most recent census estimates based on surveys from 2009 to 2011. Salvadorans are Long Island's largest Hispanic group, followed by nearly 89,000 Puerto Ricans and 42,000 Dominicans, according to a 2010 Census report. Sorto said the festival helps Salvadoran-Americans cherish Salvadoran culture.
"I think it's bringing Salvadoran-Americans to their roots with music, food," Sorto said. Down the street, a team of dancers on a stage stepped to the famous Latin music of cumbia. The event also helped those who miss El Salvador. "To me, it's like being a little bit back home," Sorto said.
Near the stage was event volunteer Arnaldo Iglesias, 27, of Uniondale. He stood under a tent among the nearly 50 vendor stations at the festival, several of which grilled the signature Salvadoran dish called pupusa, tortillas stuffed with meat and cheese. Iglesias said what distinguished this year's festival from previous years is increased Salvadoran-American involvement. Nearly a dozen Salvadoran-American children presented musical performances based on stories from Salvadoran folklore.
"This is a way for non-Salvadorans to know we are here, we are people of good," Iglesias said as nearby merchants busily sold Salvadoran flags and soccer jerseys. "We are here to work, better our lives and pursue the American dream."
Jon Athan may have such a dream. Athan, 18, will soon attend Marine Corps boot camp. He was helping to pitch a tent for a group of family friends barbecuing meat on a charcoal grill to a swelling crowd of nearly 20 customers. Athan, who was born in America to Salvadoran parents, said his nationalism will grow even more important after he joins the Marines.
"The Marine Corps has people from all different walks of life, from all across the country," said Athan, of Hempstead Village. "It's very important to remember where you come from and it's good to share that with people who may not know, may not understand."