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Carnaval San Francisco festivities begin with food and music block party

Carnaval San Francisco kicks off with street party in Mission District
Carnaval San Francisco kicks off with street party in Mission District 03:31

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco kicked off its annual Carnaval celebration on Saturday with a food and music festival occupying seven blocks of Harrison Street in the Mission District. For nearly 50 years, the event has highlighted the rich diversity within the city's Latin community.

"Forty-six years ago, if we had 100 people that was a lot!" said Roberto Hernandez, CEO of CANA the group that organizes the annual cultural festival and parade.

RELATED: San Francisco Carnaval festival: Here's what to know

Now, turnout is closer to half a million and, while events honoring San Francisco's diversity often focus on one group at a time, Hernandez says Carnaval takes a more holistic approach to recognizing Latin culture.

"Most people think we're Mexicans but it brings in the Brazilians, Argentinians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans -- 18 different Latin American and Caribbean countries," he said.  "It brings harmony and educates people about the different roots of our culture as Latinos."

In fact, that's this year's theme: "Honor Indigenous Roots." It highlights the connection to the Native American community, as well.  That diversity is reflected in everything about the festival, from the food to the art to the dancing. Behind it all is the music and a group of percussionists from the Radio Habana Social Club said it all starts with the drums.

"This would be like a samba," explained Bobby Ibarra as he thumped out a rhythm on a conga drum. "This would be like a Cuban son de ma," he said, changing up the beat. "And then you would go into the mambo," he said, changing it once again to show the wide variety of styles.  "Everybody -- anybody -- has their own input because it comes from the feel.  And it's really a beautiful thing that happens."

"These produce Latin sound," said Francis De Leon, pointing to the congas. "But the tradition of drums came from Africa.  If there ain't no Africa, ain't no drums!"

At Carnaval, the connection between Africa and Latin America is a constant theme. Oakland-based graphic artist Jerry Limon uses a blend of the continents' imagery in his Estilo Clothing collection.

"Well, I actually identify as Afro-Latino so, it's two things coming together to make one thing that is very celebrated," he said.  "Carnaval to me, at its basic, is a celebration, you know? A celebration of life.  And here, you'll see a lot of different cultures celebrating what they bring to the community."

Bringing cultures together is the goal of Carnaval and Jorge Gonzalez said he had been coming to the festival and parade every year since he was a little kid. This year he brought his own young son.

"It's just like your family out here, you know?" Gonzalez said.  "You can't go too far without seeing someone you grew up with or somebody you're related to.  Just hanging out and meeting people out here. It's fun!"

The weekend festival and Sunday parade have grown naturally over nearly a half century and have become a mainstay of San Francisco tradition. The event's lead organizer, Roberto Hernandez, said it is the roots of the Latin community that gives Carnaval its authenticity.  While other parts of the country have to work to promote diversity, in San Francisco, it comes naturally.

"Here in the Mission and San Francisco, it's just so -- it lends itself -- because organically it grows within you," Hernandez said. 

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