Last weekend, Grace Gomez trailed along her mother and sisters to drop off some books at the library.
Two hours later, the 11-year-old was still there, eating a bright blue Popsicle, listening to a mariachi band and learning the process of harvesting plantains.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” Grace said, with a big grin. “I’m excited to watch the puppet show next.”
Grace and her family were among the hundreds of people who enjoyed Johnson County Library’s Latino Fest held at the Central Resource location on Saturday afternoon.
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The festival featured educational booths about every Latin American country, live music, face painting, cold treats and a book sale.
“This has been an unexpected pleasure,” said her mom, Shannon Gomez. “We didn’t even know this festival was going on today. I think it’s a wonderful way to celebrate people in our community and the cultures they come from.”
This year marked the first time the festival was held at Central Resource Library. For the first seven years, it had been held at the Oak Park branch in Overland Park.
The growing attendance forced organizers to seek a larger venue. Last year, the festival attracted more than 900 people. This year, organizers estimate it drew more than 1,000.
“There was a line of people waiting for the doors to open this morning, which was very exciting to see,” said German Perilla, one of the organizers. “This new space is huge, so it’s great to have a good crowd show up for the festival.”
Perilla, an information specialist at Oak Park, and Magali Vallazza, the Oak Park branch manager, helped create the festival nearly a decade ago as a way to embrace the Latin American community and also educate the public on its cultures.
Participants in the festival agree the event has blossomed just as the Latino population in Johnson County is quickly growing and becoming a large presence.
“Johnson County is not a homogenous community and we’re fortunate in that way,” said Kathy McGinley, president of the Friends of the Johnson County Library. “We’re a blend of all different cultures and I think it’s fascinating and important to learn about those cultures.”
She was particularly pleased that the book sale was such a huge hit at the festival. She oversaw the sale, which showcased Spanish language books, children’s books and music CDs.
This year, the library also focused more intently on the services it offers, such as bilingual storytime and the lecture series.
“The library has expanded beyond books on a shelf,” said Joseph Keehn, events producer for the Johnson County Library. “It offers so many more resources in response to the changing of times.”
A popular resource booth at the festival was the League of Women Voters of Johnson County.
“The Hispanic vote has made a huge impact in the last few elections and it will continue to do so,” Diane Kuhn, co-president of the organization. “So we came here to encourage folks to register to vote and to educate them on advanced voting.”
Most of the crowds, however, swarmed around the Latin American education booths, focusing on each country. Parents and children admired the variety of items, including dolls, musical instruments, maps and coins, on display.
And while it was a learning experience for children like Grace Gomez, it was also educational for people hailing from Latin America.
Haydee Tortolero brought her three daughters to the Latino Fest. An immigrant from Mexico, she was thrilled by the experience. She plans on bringing her family again next year.
“I loved learning about the other countries,” she said. “It was very interesting.”