¡Viva Centroamérica!

In an out-of-the-way forest preserve in north suburban Morton Grove, hundreds of banner-waving Latinos assembled this past Sunday for delicious cuisine, traditional song and dance, and fun games for the kids. Cars and trucks adorned with flags were lined up in the nearby parking lot as families and friends carried coolers, lawn chairs and portable grills. The young and the old alike lit up the dancefloor as the DJ pumped Afro-Latin beats through two monstrous speakers on either side of his booth. Teens and 20-something donning full uniform wrestled for a soccer ball on a wide field where backpacks and trees were used as goal posts; anything that broke the plane of a nearby collapsable table was ruled out of bounds.

The date was September 16th, an important day on the Latin American calendar. For the 60 percent of Latinos in America who are Mexican or of Mexican heritage, the day marks the anniversary of the famous “Grito de Dolores” delivered by father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1810, memorialized as the start of the war to free Mexico from Spanish colonial control.

But the people who gathered on Sunday weren’t carrying Mexican flags. In fact, there may not have been one person wearing a green-white-and-red shirt in the whole bunch. Only one food vendor among the 10 present served traditional Mexican dishes, and the DJ, who called himself “Catracho Man,” never played mariachi, norteño or banda.

The flags on the cars weren’t the more famous tricolor of Mexico, but were the flags of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica — flags of Chicago’s Central American community.

Sunday’s picnic, organized by the Sociedad Cívica Cultural Centroamericana, commemorated the anniversary of Central American independence from Spain.

Mexico (which formerly included the U.S. Southwest) and the Central American nations were all once part of the Spanish territory of New Spain. Mexico declared its independence from the Spanish Crown in 1810 — an independence it would secure 11 years later — but the five Central American countries, which comprised the Kingdom of Guatemala, didn’t declare independence from Spain until September 15, 1821.

Thus, while neighbors geographically, Mexico and Central America have historically shared few things in common.

Even before Columbus set sail in 1492 and forever altered the course of North American history, Mexico and Central America were already split into opposing tribes with separate cultures and histories — most of Mexico being dominated by the Aztec people and their descendants, Southern Mexico and Guatemala being dominated by the Maya and their descendants, and the rest of Central America being inhabited by Mayan descendants and other Isthmo-Colombian peoples.

When the Kingdom of Guatemala eventually declared independence from Spain in 1821, they were annexed after a few months by the newly-independent Mexican Empire. After Mexico became a republic in 1823, the Central American nations were granted independence and quickly formed their own nation, which they named the “Federal Republic of Central America” and modeled after the United States. But that too disintegrated 15 years later when Honduras — my maternal homeland — declared its independence from the republic.

Still, even to this day, there is still something like an invisible yet very real Central American union, demonstrated most conspicuously by the five stars on the Honduran flag representing the five nations of the former Central American republic and the hope of a future reunion. Four out of the former five member nations have flags remarkably similar to the Central American flag, Nicaragua especially.

Besides being dwarfed population-wise in the United States by Mexicans, the people of Central America are dwarfed by the modern-day “Centauro del Norte” back home. The estimated 114 million people living in Mexico give the perception of looming over every Central American south of the Mexican border — who, combined, only number 42 million. In the United States, Central American-Americans only make up about 7 percent of the Latino population.

All of this leads Central Americans in the United States to be much closer than other Latinos — perhaps except for the Antilleans. And yet, Central Americans are much less known than other Latino groups, so the level of camaraderie among Central Americans will most likely carry on self-sustained.

I was accompanied on Sunday by two Mexicans: my wife and her cousin. I knew that, like most Latinos, they had no idea what to expect from a Central American festival, and once we arrived, they walked the grounds like wide-eyed children taking in a new spectacle or world travelers taking in a new wonder. The day was quickly flooded with “What’s this?” and “What’s that?” as I did my best to be an able cultural ambassador of the Central American people — or at least the Honduran people. Being as dependably second-generation American as I am, I couldn’t explain some of what was going on it — reacquainting myself with my ancestral culture is part of the reason I attended.

My wife’s cousin got the impression that Central Americans are anti-Mexican. I explained to him that far from being anti-anyone, Central Americans are adamantly non-Mexican and pro-Central American. He then quipped that Central Americans seem to have a Napoleon complex due to their small population and low cultural profile. I let him have that one, because there actually might be something to that charge.

The one cultural feature my wife and her cousin seemed to enjoy the most was punta, an Afro-Caribbean type of music and dance native to the Garifuna people living along the northern coast of Honduras. As difficult to describe as it is to actually do, it’s marked by its tribal tempo and a fast, rhythmic shaking of the hips.

Once the sun started to dip below the treeline, the festivities came to an abrupt end as organizers and attendees quickly packed everything up — tents, tables, chairs, equipment — and loaded it all into waiting cars and trucks. In what seemed like five short minutes, the event I’d been anticipating for most of the year had drawn to a close.

Still, in the end, I got the chance to reconnect with my mother’s native culture and introduce its treasures to a pair of Latinos who may have never come in contact with them otherwise.

Personally, I disapprove of any kind of clannishness — whether it be provincial, national, regional or even racial-ethnic. But better understanding such feelings helps develop an appreciation for its origins and the potential for unity it engenders.

So, in light of that, and in the hopes of transcending the nationalism that divides Latinos today and the racial loyalties that divide people the American people, I say ¡Viva Centroamérica!