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It started as a potluck among friends at the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora and is now one of the most popular cultural festivals in the state.For 15 years, A Taste of Puerto Rico Festival has showcased the music, food and culture of "The Island of Enchantment."

And this year Puerto Ricans want to throw an all out bash, said organizer Alvino Velásquez.

Velásquez is bringing local bands Conjunto Colores, Jazz de Barrio, Son con Tres and los Lunaticos to entertain the more than 1,000 people who attend the event annually. The festival will take place June 11-12 at Stapleton Central Park in Denver. It will feature dance competitions, salsa and conga classes as well as Puerto Rican food.

"This year we are coming back strong," Velásquez said. "Rainfall ruined the festival last year, but people still had a good time."

The festival is a tradition too important to cancel because of bad weather, lack of funds or any other challenge it has faced since its inception, he said.

Puerto Ricans see it as a celebration of their achievements. As American citizens they are an integral part of the cultural fabric of the United States, even if other people fail to recognize it, said Velásquez.

The goal of the festival is to educate the general community about Puerto Rico and its status as an unincorporated territory of the United States, he said. The 40-year-old Puerto Rican, born in Arecibo and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., took over organization of the festival in 2006. He said he donates up to $15,000 to fund the festival every year.

"It's my passion. I have to educate people about my country all the time. I tell them that we are a commonwealth, but we are part of the United States, that we keep our traditions and language and contribute greatly to this nation," he said. "Now we have Sonia Sotomayor (Supreme Court Justice) as an example."

Puerto Rico is an archipelago of islands located in the northeastern Caribbean. Spain ceded the territory to the United States in 1898 and is known officially as the Common-wealth of Puerto Rico. The island has an autonomous government headed by an elected governor.

Due to 400 years of Spanish domination, large sections of the main island feature colonial architecture, including large forts that were used to protect the island in those times. Today the forts are a major tourist attraction, as is the radio telescope in Arecibo, one of the largest in the world.

The Puerto Rican culture is a mix of African, Taíno, Spanish and North American influences. Puerto Ricans were recognized as American citizens by the U.S. Congress in 1917.

In the decades since, thousands of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the East Coast, especially to New York.

The large community there has celebrated its traditions for more than 54 years with the Puerto Rican Parade, which attracts more than 3 million people including famous Latino actors and singers and prominent politicians. The parade, which takes place on June 12, was the inspiration behind the festival in Denver, Velásquez said.

According to 2010 Census data, more people of Puerto Rican descent live in the mainland United States than on the island. About 4.6 million Puerto Ricans call the mainland U.S. home, compared with 3.7 million who live in Puerto Rico. In Colorado, there are about 23,000 Puerto Ricans.

Francisco Mejias, 53, moved to Denver in the '80s to further his education. He graduated from Metro State College with a degree in Bilingual Education and worked in Denver Public Schools and the Boulder Valley School District 13. Today he is a program director at the I Have a Dream Foundation in Boulder, where he works primarily with Latino students.

Mejias was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico. He said that his more than 70 students have benefited from his Afro-Puerto Rican heritage and his bilingual skills.

"Being multicultural, being bilingual, means everything to me. It has opened many doors," he said. "But like many Latinos, Puerto Ricans also face racism. What I tell my students is that they live in a big world where they will have to learn to be flexible in the environment they live in. They have to respect others and demand respect as well."

Lady of Singapur
Lady of Singapur
 

Mejias is also the director of Conjunto Colores, which pioneered salsa music in Denver 20 years ago. The 12-member band will perform songs from legendary Puerto Rican singers at the Puerto Rican fest as well as give bongo instruction.

"We'll be playing hot, spicy salsa music. We'll highlight music from Gilberto Santa Rosa, Hector Lavoe and of course we'll sing the (traditional) song 'Mi Borinquen,'" said the musician, who began playing percussion instruments professionally at age 12.

"Puerto Ricans are very cultural people. We grow up surrounded by culture, and we value its significance in our lives," said Tariana Navas-Nieves, curator of Hispanic and Native American art at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Navas-Nieves also grew up listening to traditional Puerto Rican rhythms. She was also exposed to dancing, theater and fine arts throughout her life. Eventually she decided to study Art History, specializing in Latin American Arts, an area in which she has a Master's degree from the University of Texas.

Her work as a curator at the Museo de las Americas and consultant to the Denver Art Museum's New World Department landed her a position as the first Hispanic curator of the extensive collection of Hispanic and Native American Arts at the Fine Arts Center. Today, the collection of Hispanic art has an additional 100 pieces, and Navas-Nieves continues to promote art and photography exhibitions of Latin American and Native American artists in the museum.

"For me it is important that Latinos, like Native Americans, are able to tell their stories in their own voice," she said. "As a Puerto Rican, I have a certain heightened degree of cultural sensibility to the arts, and being bilingual helps me to understand the cultural perspective of Latin American artists."

RECIPE

Lady of Singapore
Ingredients:
1 oz fresh lime juice
2 oz Coco Lopez Coconut Cream
1.5 oz fresh cream
1 oz unsweetened pineapple juice
1.5 oz Puerto Rican rum
1 tsp Grenadine
4 oz crushed ice
directions:
Put all ingredients in a blender, saving crushed ice for last. Blend on high speed for seven seconds. Serve with a cherry or a slice of pineapple as garnish. This blended drink is a lighter and less sweet version of a piña colada.
-Ministry of Rum

Origin of the term Boricua
Puerto Ricans often call the island Borinquen, from "Borikén," its indigenous Taíno name. The terms "boricua" and "borincano" are commonly used to identify someone of Puerto Rican heritage. The Puerto Rican culture is a mix of African, Taíno, Spanish and North American cultures.
Source: Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner

A Taste of Puerto Rico Festival
June 11-12, 10 a.m.
Stapleton Central Park, 9225 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Denver
atasteofpuertoricofestival.com, 303.667.4031