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Orlando Sentinel

Fears Don't Dampen Calle Orange Crowd

By Jon Steinman

October 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.


    We have to move on and celebrate what we have. ... We have to live our lives and have fun.'

    Latin music singer Tito Puente Jr.


Busy stroll.


The third annual Festival Calle Orange, Central Florida's celebration of Hispanic heritage and diversity, thumped through downtown Orlando Sunday -- unfolding in jubilant, syncopated strides beneath crisp blue skies.

The city's largest public gathering since terrorist strikes exploded more than a month ago showed few outward signs of nervousness.

Yet the sheer size of the crowd warranted a security review by Orlando officials more than two weeks ago.

Security, for an event estimated to have drawn some 50,000 revelers, was the byword of the festival. It had to be: Attendance on Sunday was more than double that of the University of Central Florida's homecoming game a week earlier.

As thousands moved to salsa and merengue beats pulsing off four stages, you didn't have to wear a badge to feel the long shadow of Sept. 11.


Day to dance.


"Everyone's been affected," said Tito Puente Jr., the Latin-music singer and son of the famed percussionist, as he relaxed before his set began on one of the stages. "We're all here for the music and to celebrate our cultural diversity. But I was at ground zero in New York last week, and my heart fell into the pit of my stomach. We all think about this. But we have to move on and celebrate what we have.

"I'm not nervous to be here -- we have to live our lives and have fun," he said, flashing a wide grin.

Like last year, entry into this year's downtown street festival was limited to one gate -- on Orange Avenue at Livingston Street.

This arrangement provided event organizers with the ability to search bags before people entered the seven blocks of music, food, drinks and trinkets-for-sale.

"It's not a problem for us to be searched," said Wilfredo Polen, of Orlando, who came with his daughter Ysabell. "I'd be worried if they didn't search us."

Polen spoke as if he were part of a chorus; everyone interviewed refused to let fears of terrorism rob them of a Sunday afternoon on the town, even as they spoke of understanding the risks of gathering in public.

"I'm not going to let terrorists dictate my life," said Richard Jardim, of Altamonte Springs.

"I don't worry about them. We've got a good government, we're safe. I'm here to have fun. There is a lot of pride here. We have pride in our diversity of Hispanic culture and that we're all Americans."

Emanuel, the Mexican pop star, left the stage to loud cheers. But the same thoughts that animated Jardim coursed through Emanuel.

"There are a lot of people here, which might make some nervous," he said. "But we're here to have fun. The crowd showed me a lot of love. That's all I can ask for."

At 5 p.m., the celebration shifted into serious gear as respect was paid to local police, fire and paramedic officers -- and to their fallen counterparts in New York and Washington, D.C.

As the sun began to set, unfurling golden streaks across the sky, "God Bless America" blared through the packed streets. People sang along, waving their arms above their heads and holding aloft American flags.

When the last strains faded out, festival producer and organizer Rene Plasencia yelled: "Viva America" to thunderous applause.

"You can't be nervous just because so many people gather together," Plasencia said during a brief moment between stage appearances.

"We can't stay home. That's what the terrorists want. We're not afraid."

Sgt. Orlando Rolon, of the Orlando Police Department, helped brace police officers assigned to Calle Orange in the days leading up to Sunday, rallying them to be prepared for anything -- even if they expected little more than a lot of music and food, which is what they got.

"This is smooth as can be," Rolon said, enjoying some barbecued pork and red beans at one of the dozens of food stalls. "Everything is normal.


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