Organizers of Fiestas Patrias in Aurora have stepped back from their original plan of charging $2 admission for this year's festival, but they still may face challenges in getting approval to host the celebration of Mexican independence in September.
Controversy began brewing when word got out that the Aurora Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which last year ran the first Fiestas Patrias in partnership with the Aurora Hispanic Heritage Advisory Board, intended to charge $2 to get into the celebration.
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"This festival is a celebration of Mexican independence. It's the same as charging for the fireworks on the Fourth of July," Alderman Juany Garza said.
And that means festival admission should remain free, said Garza, echoing the thoughts of residents who she says are concerned about where revenue from this year's festival will go.
Money generated from the sale of food and alcohol at last year's festival went to several Aurora groups that provide scholarships, including the city's Hispanic and African American heritage boards and the Aurora Puerto Rican Cultural Council, said Rene Cruz, president of the Aurora Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
In past years, the chamber ran its own scholarship program, giving about $250,000 over 16 years, Cruz said. But running a separate scholarship program became too time-consuming and not directly related to the chamber's goal of promoting the area's Hispanic businesses.
So last year, chamber leaders decided, "Let's get rid of the work of doing scholarships and let's give the funds to the organizations that give out the scholarships," Cruz said.
Garza said the chamber was not clear enough about who received scholarship money from last year's festival, so she's requesting the chamber commit to donating a set percentage of proceeds toward scholarships.
"We need to know the money is coming back to the community in scholarships," Garza said. "We're happy with that."
But Cruz said the requirement to dedicate a set percentage for scholarships subjects his organization to a standard not expected of other groups that host community events, such as the Puerto Rican Cultural Council, which is holding its 40th annual festival and parade this weekend without questions of how much revenue will go toward scholarships it doles out yearly.
The chamber intends to keep giving scholarships, but not at a percentage set by anyone else, and only because its members believe helping with college tuition is important, Cruz said.
"We do it because we're passionate," he said. "We do it because we love it."
Cruz said the chamber has not heard from any of the residents Garza says are harboring concerns about use of the festival's revenue.
He said he is glad the chamber's request for permission to hold the second annual Fiestas Patrias from Sept. 16-18 made it out of committee and will be considered by the full city council. The council is likely to get its first look at the chamber's special event request Aug. 2.