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Bangor Daily News

Si! Maine Latinos State's Growing Latin American Community Finds Fellowship In Native Food And Dance


June 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bangor Daily News, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Maria Baeza, a therapist in Bangor and native of Puerto Rico, was on her way to an ice cream store one day three years ago when she saw a dark-skinned man on a bike. She studied his face from afar and wondered if he was Latino, too. Baeza devised a clever way to find out. She turned up the Latin music on her car stereo and rolled down the windows. As she passed the man on the bike, she slowed her pace. His response gave her the answer she needed. The man hopped off his bike and started dancing salsa in the street. Baeza pulled over. "Are you Spanish?"

The answer was si. Not long after, Baeza and Felix Hernandez, a professional dancer, became dance partners and good friends. Their festive connection was obvious at a dance party last Sunday at Belfast Area High School where more than 60 Latinos from central and coastal Maine met for a potluck dinner, Spanish conversation and Latin dance. Nearly everyone in the group had a story similar to the one Baeza tells about meeting other Latinos in the area by bumping into them on purpose.

While the 2000 census revealed that Maine is the whitest state in the country, it has an active Latino community that numbers just fewer than 10,000, and is expected to double by 2025. Latinos - united by their Spanish language - make up one of the fastest- growing ethnic groups both in Maine and nationally, according to the census. Many of the participants in Sunday's event have lived in Maine for more than 20 years, and others had arrived within the past few months. Amalia Power, for instance, moved from Mexico to Farmington last fall to get married and raise her child.

But whether Latinos in this group came from the Dominican Republic or the Bronx, they all call Maine home now. They recognize and query each other in grocery stores, fitness centers or in line at the bank and become fast friends, exchanging stories about the culture they have left behind in South America, Central America, Europe and New York City.

"People are happy to see people from their country of origin or from where they have family," said Nanette Lopez, who lives in Union and oversees an informal group of coastal Latinos who meet once a month for lunch. "It's about getting to know each other. It's about friendship. We just start talking and asking about family, and before you know it, we're friends."

That's exactly how several Latino groups in the area formed. As a result of the casual introductions, Baeza holds an annual Latino night at her home in Newburgh where as many as 50 Latinos have showed up with ethnic food and a ready spirit for merengue, salsa and cha-cha. Sunday's gathering was the first time the Bangor and coastal groups collaborated on an event.

"This feeds my soul," said Baeza, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Our culture is so different from what you find in Maine. So to be with people who touch you so freely and to be around women who are so open, and, for that one moment, to experience the laughter and loudness means so much. In your differentness - whatever that may be - when you are in a host culture, you're not reflected back in mannerisms or coloring or style. When I see somebody Latino here, there's just a feeling of home. I don't have to explain things or moderate."

Last summer at the National Folk Festival in Bangor, Latinos in the area turned out in large numbers to enjoy various Latin music and dance featured in the programming. They filled the dance floor and even spent time teaching dances to others who were interested.

"At the folk festival, it all coalesced," said Baeza. "A whole weekend of music and gathering made us hungry for more."

A committee was formed to arrange regular food-and-dance meetings with local Latinos and others who appreciate the many cultures derived from or associated with the music, language, traditions and food. Baeza and Maria Leyro of Hampden organized the first dance in February at Husson College. More than 100 people attended. The success fortified organizers to produce a second event, which took place in April. Plans for a third salsa dance night are under way for August.

"It's wonderful just to keep my ethnicity alive and keep in touch with who I am and where I came from," said Leyro, who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in New York City.

Annabelle Marquez, a Spanish teacher at Belfast High School and principal organizer of Sunday's festivities, moved from Puerto Rico to the United States when she was 17. As with several of the women at the party, she married a Mainer and has established a professional and family life for herself in a climate entirely different from her native one.

"Even though I have lived in the states for many years, I miss my patria," said Marquez, using the Spanish word for "homeland." "This is a way of speaking Spanish with people from different cultures. But we also have helped each other through a network that gets people through difficult times, whether they are emotional or financial or adjusting to America. It's essential."

Marquez required students from her Spanish class to attend the event as part of a class assignment. They spoke Spanish at dinner and were the last to leave the dance floor at the end of the night.

Rizi Arce, a Hampden eighth-grader whose family is originally from Puerto Rico, gave up a night at the mall with her friends to be with her parents and little sister for the Latino night.

"It's part of my culture and it's fun," said Rizi, who danced with her mother. "You can just be yourself and dance."

To be included on the mailing list for Latino events in the area, call Maria Baeza at 942-2230

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