KENSINGTON, MD — "You don't know how much you miss (the Latin culture) until you see a performance like this," said Robert Vasquez of El Salvador, an enthusiastic visitor of the annual Celebration of Hispanic Heritage held at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors Center on Oct. 22-24.
Many were surprised at how nostalgic it made them feel to be with other Hispanics and to hear music from their native countries. An estimated 80 percent of the performers were not members of the Church.
More than 3,000 people of various nationalities attended the two-night performance. They marveled at the professional performances and the diverse tapestry of Hispanic culture. In music, dance and craft, 21 Spanish-speaking countries were represented, from the exotic rhythms of salsa to the twirling skirts of folkloric dancers to the vibrant colors of handmade quilts.
"I loved being here and remembering my country," said Carlos Barrera, a member of the Church from El Salvador. His family agreed with him and added that the visitors center was providing a great service to bring Hispanics together to celebrate similarities as well as differences.
Marta Garrado of Guatemala, a young woman who came by invitation from the missionaries, attended both evenings because she could feel the unity that tied the Hispanic community together.
That's how Mercedes Lorenzana, chairwoman of the event, was hoping people would feel. "We wanted to celebrate in a way that reflects who we are, to remind us of our heritage and to relive our roots," said Sister Lorenzana, who is originally from Peru.
She believes that parents need to pass along their culture and family stories to their children, especially if the family lives in a new country. "This event is an opportunity to bring families together, to share what our ancestors have given us," she said.
The event included two nights of music and dance, plus a Sunday evening fireside featuring noted LDS songwriter Janice Kapp Perry and her husband, Douglas, who recently returned from a full-time mission to Chile.
At the Family History exhibit, visitors selected a CD and brochures about Hispanic genealogical research. Sister missionaries welcomed visitors to an extensive arts and crafts exhibit that displayed paintings, flutes, dolls, pottery, textiles and jewelry.
Crowds were so large that many visitors watched on closed-circuit broadcast in smaller theaters at the visitors center. The two-hour entertainment program was hosted by Bishop Marco Lorenzana of the Washington D.C. 1st Ward. He began with a short film about the Hispanic-American world, followed by a "Parade of Nations" that included many LDS youth.
Folkloric groups from Argentina, Paraguay, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and Spain, as well as youth folkloric groups from Bolivia and Peru, performed before a cheering crowd of all ages.
Instrumentalists included Mariachis from Mexico, a Bandoneon player from Argentina and a harpist and guitarist from Paraguay. Vocalists from Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru presented music that ranged from salsa to popular.
Some performances brought the audience to their feet with whistles and loud applause, especially the Mariachis and the Marinera Nortena dance by 6-year-old Alejandra Ramos and 4-year-old Luis Ochoa from Peru.
"It was thrilling to see the magnificent costumes and watch everyone be so proud," said Carolyn Shipp, wife of Bishop Royal Shipp of the Bella Vista Ward in McLean, Virginia. "It just sent chills up my spine," she added.
This enthusiasm continued long after the performances according to Elder M. David Knight, director of the visitors center. He noted how people were greeting and hugging each other in the foyer. "There was a great sense of love and joyful reunion which reflects the loving culture of the Hispanic people."
Marta and Jose Morales, the only LDS members of a Panamanian dance group, said that many non-Hispanic visitors were surprised at the diversity within Hispanic cultures. "They were amazed at the differences, especially in the musical sounds," she said, "so it's nice that so many countries could be represented."
The fireside Sunday again filled the 550-seat theater. A choir of Spanish-speaking sisters from the North and South D.C. missions joined Sister Perry and her husband for a program of songs and stories. They discussed ways to face today's challenges and the importance of developing talents.
Following the program, Sister Perry praised the pageantry of costume and music as one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen.
"The visitors center was a perfect venue for this," she said, "so all of us have a chance to recognize the talents of these wonderful people." Sister Perry is now helping to organize "La Luz de las Naciones," a similar Hispanic event to take place Nov. 13 in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.