Story by Evelynn Coffie, senior at Lusher High School.
Audubon Zoo guests stood in front of the nature-themed entrance as they waited to be greeted by cheerful cashiers sweating beneath the mid-afternoon sun. Meanwhile, pink flamingos circled their pen, and a line of palm trees led to an elephant situated in the center of the park. People were walking in all kinds of directions at the zoo, but on this bright Saturday on October 6, the real party was happening in the vast Capital One Field.
Around 5,000-7,000 people attend Celebración Latina each year, with free tickets distributed by schools and local organizations. “Free tickets allow for people to attend across a wide swath of cultural groups—something important for a heritage as diverse as Latin American culture,” Eileen Johnson, Audubon Zoo’s event coordinator, said.
Amidst a national dialogue about the Latino population that often focuses on immigration politics, local events like Celebración Latina help change the conversation to instill positivity in the Latino community and surrounding communities, recognizing that heritage matters.
Celebración Latina is an annual event during Hispanic Heritage month, highlighting the contributions and culture of the Latin American community in the greater New Orleans area. It’s an event sponsored by both the Pan-American Life Insurance Group and the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University.
Audubon Zoo collaborates with local companies and organizations that help connect people to the event. It also helps bring in musicians and vendors. Compared to other events hosted in Audubon Zoo—like Boo at the Zoo—Johnson claims, Celebración Latina takes less than an hour to clean up.
Raphael Saddy, a volunteer in his early 50s, sat behind a table underneath a canopy tent with stickers, erasers, and pencils in front of him. This was his fifth time volunteering for Celebración Latina. “A lot of families come by—kids come by,” Saddy said. He pointed to a stand-up spinning wheel on the table. “I have the wheel of fortune—kids always win something.”
He shoved a small-stuffed bear underneath the table as a child walked away. Kids automatically win, whereas teens and adults usually get a Halloween-decorated eraser or a pencil if they land on the right segment. “They have to pick the lucky number,” Saddy said, looking at the wheel as it spun in the wind.
This was the 15th anniversary of Celebración Latina. Originally, the event was not in Audubon Zoo, but in the New Orleans Public Library branch in Lawrence Square on Napoleon Avenue. Denise Vargas, a Senior Program Manager of the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University, has been a part of the program since 2004 before it created the cultural festival. “When the event began, we wanted to include Latin culture by collaborating with the New Orleans Public Library with arts and crafts for the kids, and music,” Vargas said.
Discussions about relocating from the library to the Audubon Zoo happened between 2011-2012. “We eventually brought the event to the zoo to reach out to a larger Hispanic audience in the city.” The event’s relocation was, in large part, due to the growing attendance.
According to Vargas, before Hurricane Katrina, the Hispanic population was “a little different” than what it looked like today. In 2000, the U.S. Census estimated The United States 2000 estimated that the Hispanic/Latino population to be 14,826 people in New Orleans, which then grew to 18,051 in 2010—five years after Katrina—and a 2018 estimated to be 21,963 people of Hispanic/Latino descent.
However, after Hurricane Katrina, when most New Orleanians refused to return to a ravaged city they once called home, there was a vast influx of residents of Hispanic/ Latino descent. This influx was due in large part because of reconstruction opportunities in New Orleans.
In 2011, deportation proceedings across the state totaled 10,231 cases—more than three times the number filed in 2004. The number of cases fell back after 2011, but it’s still hovering at about double pre-Katrina numbers. Even so, under Donald Trump’s current administration, Hispanic/Latino people still suffer from a perpetual violation of their constitutional rights with ICE agents detaining Hispanic/Latino people in caged facilities.
Back at Celebración Latina, Fabio Milla, a first time attender of the event, already had a couple of favorite things there: Felipe’s Taqueria corn tortillas and the lively music from artists like Blake Amos—a New Orleans musician blending Soul and Brazilian elements into a refreshing performance. The crowds were still thriving as the sun shone above the field. Some came after walking around the 58-acre zoo to sit beneath the trees and bob their heads to the strum of a guitar.
Jada Williams, a New Orleans native and first-time attendee, thought the event was “pretty chill.” She went on to say, “Everything is really organized and set-up. There’s literally no way you get anything confused here.” Shealso planned to stroll through the zoo’s Jaguar Jungle and Central American-themed exhibits, but not before stopping to grab some nachos.