Jose Garcia first conceived of the idea to host a Hispanic-themed event in the mid-1980s while listening to Latin-influenced music at the old Thunderbird Club on Okaloosa Island.
“I remember Miami Sound Machine being very popular at the time, so every time they and similar-sounding music came on, people would go wild,” says Garcia, a native of Puerto Rico who first came to the area in 1981 when he was stationed as an airman at Hurlburt Field.
Few Latinos lived in the area at the time, but as the decades progressed and that population grew, so did his ambitions and longing for the food and culture he’d left behind. It was a sentiment he heard from many other Hispanics, who didn’t necessarily want to return to their countries of origin but missed the familiar sights, sounds and smells of home.
What started out in 2008 as a beach barbecue at a pavilion on Eglin Beach Park has since evolved into the annual, all-day Latin Salsa Festival. The event, aimed at promoting and sharing Hispanic culture and heritage, now draws an average of about 3,000 each year.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the free event will be held 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, June 17, at the Landing in Fort Walton Beach. Numerous activities will be held throughout the day for people of all ages, including a dominoes tournament, dancing and raffles.
Live music will be provided by Michael Aldahondo (Pensacola), Conjunto Gúajiba con Sharina (Massachusetts), Latin Soul Orchestra (Tallahassee), Luis Manuel “La Lena” (Orlando), La Morenita Del Swing (Puerto Rico) and Taller De Bomba Balancé (Orlando).
Between 25 and 30 vendors will have booths set up, with some handing out information and selling souvenirs and others offering up a variety of Caribbean-style food.
The event is hosted each year by the Northwest Florida Boricuas Ausentes (“Puerto Ricans Absent from Puerto Rico”), which Garcia founded in 2009 specifically to host the festival. “This is the first year that we have had quite a bit of corporate support,” he says.
In addition to providing Latin-style food and fun, the festival donates a portion of the day’s proceeds to AMIkids. The national nonprofit provides services to at-risk youth across the country with a particular focus on southeastern states. Fort Walton Beach, Pensacola and Panama City all have local chapters.
Garcia estimates only about $500-1,000 has been donated to date, but hopes to increase that amount as the festival gains more momentum and sponsorships. The first event held in 2008 drew an unexpectedly large crowd—about 500, he estimates—but he’s expecting “well over 3,000” to attend this year’s festival.
For more information or to become a sponsor, call 850-240-4417 or email FWBoricuas@yahoo.com.