It took the DNA of Christ to jump-start the 43rd annual Aurora Puerto Rican Heritage Festival Saturday morning, and the Aurora-based band hit the main stage with such joy and exuberance, it coaxed a bashful sun from its hiding place among the clouds.
"These are my people!" said Victor Tores, a professional musician who's lived in Aurora most of his life. "I love the atmosphere, the tropical feeling of the island and bringing that feeling to Aurora. I enjoy every moment of it. The people, the food, the music!"
In the morning, only 21 people sat in the audience at the John C. Dunham Pavilion at RiverEdge Park, the festival's new location since moving there last year. By 1 p.m., the park became a beehive of bustling business as families and couples ran the gauntlet between two rows of vendors' tents touting tortillas, kebabs, funnel cakes, fresh corn and pina coladas -- in Acapulco, Caribbean and nonalcoholic versions.
"We're trying to keep the heritage alive for the younger generations so they know what we're about," said Miguel Rivera, a former two-term festival president and vice-president before that. He arrived in Aurora at age 13, 55 years ago.
"Young people today, some of them forget where they came from," Rivera said. "We want to be part of a community, not just of Puerto Ricans, but the whole community of Aurora."
For the festival, RiverEdge Park offers a bigger space, better sound and better lighting than the old location in a parking lot off Downer Street, said Mirna Freitag, festival president, a position she has held for four years.
"This is a nonprofit organization and we don't have funding to host an event like this unless we have sponsors," she said. "We do little fundraisers, but that money goes to finance our scholarships. We're all volunteer. No one gets paid. And that gets a little challenging."
Freitag was born in Aurora, but moved to Puerto Rico at age 5. She came back to Aurora as a junior at Aurora East High School.
The best part about being Puerto Rican?
"Even though we're part of the U.S., we are unique," said Rivera, the former festival president. "I love it the way it is now. We are American citizens, but we are also Puerto Rican. And we're free."
The Aurora Puerto Rican Heritage Festival continues Sunday with the annual parade at noon. Go to riveredgeaurora.com/events/puerto-rican-heritage-festival.