A Taste of Latin America…in Tennessee

September is Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States. Two weeks ago I attend “HoLa Festival,” Knoxville’s annual celebration of the food, music, and culture of Latin America. For two days each fall, Market Square and adjacent Krutch Park are transformed into pedestrian malls with kiosks and booths selling food, drinks, arts, and crafts from various Latin nations, including Spain and the Caribbean.

My mom joined me for the day. She was most interested in seeing the costumes and watching the “Parade of Nations;” I was most interested in tasting the food. Krutch Park is a small green space in downtown Knoxville dotted with modernist sculptures and park benches. Market Street, which runs along the west side of the park, was closed to vehicles and turned into an open-air food carnival, similar to the Taste of Chicago and other venues that I am familiar with. Two drinks tents operated on a ticket system – one sold bottled water and soft drinks, while the other sold cervezas y margaritas!

We canvassed the street before deciding on Salvadorean food. I had a pupusa and two taquitos, while my mom had a pork tamal and one taquito. If you’re wondering what those are (I didn’t photograph our plates, unfortunately), pupusas are thick flour tortillas filled with beans and cheese and – in this case – topped with El Salvador’s version of cole slaw. Taquitos are corn tortillas that are rolled, stuffed with chicken, and deep fried, then topped with lettuce and shredded Manchego cheese. They are common street food in Mexico as well as in El Salvador, although their Mexican equivalents are usually called “flautas” (flutes). A tamal is often misspelled in the U.S. as “tamale” (the “-e” is added to the plural form of the word). By any spelling, it is a sort of corn meal, ancho chile, and chicken or pork hybrid baked into a steamed corn husk or banana leaf.

Food prices were reasonable, and the event drew considerable crowds. (Acording to the official website, over 30,000 people attended this year’s HoLa Festival.) Two booths served Mexican food – tamales, tacos, rice and beans. A Puerto Rican booth served fried seafood fritters.  A Jamaican booth served jerk chicken that looked incredible. Peruvian, Bolivian, Colombian, and Argentinean food vendors were among the others represented at the festival. The U.S. has strict agriculture laws and customs laws, so the more exotic dishes (Mexico’s fried grasshoppers, Colombia’s fat-bottomed ants, Peru’s alpaca, etc.) were nowhere to be found, but I still could have eaten satisfactorily at any country’s tent. My mom was also satisfied with her meal.

I made a mental note to grab some Jamaican-style jerk chicken later, and we proceeded towards Market Square. “The Square,” as it is often called, is a year-round hive of festival activity in Knoxville. A bandstand regularly plays host to free concerts, the east and west flanks of the square are lined with pseudo-turn-of-the-century buildings, each housing a restaurant of some sort. Ice skating is offered for several weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year’s. The entire Square is even listed on the National Register of Historic Places, although the market hall of the title actually burned to the ground in 1960.

During HoLa Festival, the southern half of the Square was filled with tents selling Latino handicrafts and take-home condiments. Alpaca dolls, flag magnets, finger puppets, packaged tortillas, tourism information, etc. A crowd gathered around the bandstand at the northern end of the Square, where a pair of local TV station anchors – one speaking English, the other Spanish – acted as emcees, interviewing a Miss Tennessee Latina finalist who apparently hailed from Knoxville (although I failed to catch her name in order to confirm this). She welcomed everyone to HoLa Festival and then cleared the stage for the music to resume. A terrific band performed for a good 45 minutes. The music was contemporary Spanish, and several couples eventually mustered up the courage to dance salsa for the last few numbers. (I didn’t dance, although I recognized perhaps half of the songs from my time living in Mexico. I also realized that I was better at understanding Spanish-language song lyrics than I’d previously suspected. This could be a fluke.)

Latinos, whether American-born or foreign-born, seldom win points for punctuality, although when they arrive, they arrive with style. As such, the “main event” – the Parade of Nations – started late but did not disappoint. Several countries were featured, and their costumed representatives paraded past the stage and waved flags as cameras flashed and spectators cheered. The U.S. was first – and had the largest delegation (including Ronald McDonald himself) – but the representatives for the other countries were more lavishly dressed. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico (which elicited the greatest applause), Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina…and Spain.

The emcees asked all parade participants to come on stage for a group photo, and everyone lingered for awhile. My mom and I perused the craft booths and eventually returned to our car. Alas, we were on the freeway driving home before I realized that I forgot the jerk chicken. There is always next year. 🙂


A few pics from the event:

Hola Fest 2014-50

Above pic: Craft booths in historic Market Square.

Below pic: Puerto Rican food tent and customers on Market Street.

Hola Fest 2014-4

Hola Fest 2014-14

Above pic: Salsa dancers in front of the Market Square bandstand.

Below pic: Ronald McDonald (a Latino?!) representing the U.S. during the Parade of Nations.

Hola Fest 2014-18 - USA - Parade of Nations

Hola Fest 2014-34 - Spain - Parade of Nations

Above pic: Flag-waving, costumed representatives from España (Spain).

Below pic: The emcees (bottom, left of center) tried to get everyone on stage for a group pic, but getting a successful pic required a very wide-angle lens. 😉

Hola Fest 2014 panorama stitch

Hola Fest 2014-5

Above pic: Papier mâché Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) figures from Mexico.

Below pic: Proud Peruvian father and daughter.

Hola Fest 2014-49

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

5 thoughts on “A Taste of Latin America…in Tennessee”

  1. My first comment… really? There’s no “e” on the end of tamal? But isn’t it even pronounced ta mal e ? Learned something new. I’ll have other comments…. still need to comment on your scary movie one!!! 🙂

    1. I suppose that “tamale” is the accepted American spelling, but technically – and in Latin America for certain – “tamal” is singular and “tamales” is (are) plural.

      I still say it incorrectly myself sometimes. Thanks for commenting!

    2. The official spelling is “tamal” in spanish… however I might need to ask you how do you PRONOUNCE this extra “e” you add. Is it like “tamale” or “tamali” (a long “e”). If it’s second, I’ve got good news for you: you’re not thaaaaaaaaat lost: the original aztec word was “tamali”, so I guess the confusion might come from there. Here’s the DRAE definition http://lema.rae.es/drae/?val=tamal

      1. It’s a long “e” like the Mexican “i.”

        Thanks for the etymology lesson. Mexican Spanish – and Spanish from northern Central America, such as El Salvador – is especially fascinating because of the added “color” brought to the vocabulary by the Aztecs, Mayans, etc.

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