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Audio: UNknown New Orleans, hispanic culture in Kenner

Towards the end of the 19th century, a priest found a small statuette of Saint Dominic in a valley near Managua, Nicaragua. He brought the statue to a church in town, and “somehow the statue disappeared, and my god, they found the statue back where it was originally,” said Rafael Saddy, event coordinator of the Nicaraguan Association of Louisiana (ANDELA). The result was a ten-day festival, called El Tope de Santo Domingo, highlighted by a parade honoring St. Dominic.

Around the turn of the 21st century, Nicaraguans in New Orleans began their own version of the festival, although in truncated form. “Well here, we cannot take ten days off work so we take one day,” said Saddy. This version, held in Kenner for the past dozen years, does feature the procession of St. Dominic, accompanied by the rhythms of folkloric music and featuring popular Nicaraguan characters including “Gigantoma” – a gigantic woman that dances to the sound of drums, “Cabezón” – her short and big-headed dance partner, and life-size bull and cows, who all dance around the Saint as he parades through Heritage Park in Rivertown.

Later is the crowning of the “India Bonita” (Queen of the Festival), and the festival concludes with a dance party with salsa and Latin dance music, along with Hispanic dishes and refreshments including plenty of Nicaraguan nacatamales.

“Of course other countries have their similar versions but the Nicaraguan one is a pretty huge one,” said Saddy. “It’s a cornmeal base, it has meat, it has rice, and then it’s wrapped in banana leaves and then it’s put to boil. It’s a lot of work to prepare one, I tell you, but it’s a good meal.”

Saddy said it’s difficult to put a number on the number of Nicaraguans in the New Orleans area. Pre-Katrina, they were the third largest Hispanic community in the area, but the Salvadoran community may have recently surpassed them.

Many Nicaraguans arrived escaping civil war, including Saddy. “My parents brought me,” he said. “I was still in elementary school. And we had a lot of folks that came into the United States and of course Miami was the first stopping city and eventually they spread themselves out to New Orleans, because it also offered a nice connection to go abroad, or to travel back and forth.”

And they didn’t just settle in one part of the city. “That is one of the beauties that we have here in New Orleans, when we compare ourselves to larger cities like Miami, Chicago, L.A.,” said Saddy. “There is no concentration of any Hispanic community here, they’re all integrated, and that’s why the community is able to live in such a peaceful way with this community because we are integrated.”

But when many of those projects began disappearing in the early 70’s, Kenner became a popular landing spot for many of the Hispanic communities. While it hosts El Topo de Santo Domingo the second week of August, it also is the site of the sixth Annual Hispanic Summer Fest, to be held June 11 and 12.

“You’re going to find Hondurans, you’re going to find folks from the Caribbean, you’re going to find folks from Central America, and from the U.S.” said Saddy. “This festival’s purpose was to integrate not only the Hispanic community as one community but also share with the entire community a day of family fun, music, and food.”

For more information on Tope Santo Domingo, call event coordinator Rafael Saddy at (504) 464-4619.

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.