The dancers entangle and turn to the enthralling rhythms of the timbales. A trumpet solo blazes.
It’s not too difficult to find a salsa show in Portland with the Cuban Son group, Primo Cubano, playing Latin folk standards at various venues in town. These local dancers and the Latin bands they swivel to are enthusiastic and vivacious.
There certainly is a Latino and Hispanic presence in Portland, but it isn’t clearly visible; any indication of a presence of these cultures is subtle and it seems to be most apparent in the growing number of Portland restaurants, dance spots and Latin musicians.
Recent national census data has shown notable demographic changes in the city as Latino populations in Portland have almost doubled since 2000, increasing from 1.5 percent of Portland to 3 percent, as reported on the 2010 census.
Ricardo Cabezas, from the Centro Latino — a support organization for Latino people in the greater Portland area, said the number of Latinos the region is approaching 10,000, but he suspects that there are many Latinos who do not appear on the recent census. He said that many of these populations are constantly moving, making accuracy difficult.
Cabezas said that Latino residents in Portland are on the rise and are expected to reach nearly 30,000 in a few years according to the Centro’s figures.
Cabezas said Latino immigrants are widely dispersed throughout the area and are diverse with respect to ethnic and national origin. They are Cuban, Argentinian, Mexican and Salvadoran to name a few. Cabezas said this diversity and dispersion, along with a very mobile population, make retrieving accurate census data difficult. And for Cabezas and the others at Centro Latino, this makes their efforts much harder to achieve.
“This is a really tough business to be in, to be the voice of the voiceless,” said Cabezas. “We don’t have a critical mass of people who are staying.”
USM junior Hispanic studies major Christopher Sutherland has been heavily involved with the Hispanic and Latino community in Portland and also in Milbridge, a relatively small town with a considerable Latino population. He works closely with David Carey, USM professor of history and a co-author of the book Latino Voices in New England, a work aimed at uncovering and understanding the Latino experience in the mostly rural state of Maine.
Sutherland said the immigrant experience is certainly diverse, but overall, they are a relatively fragmented community. The population is widely dispersed throughout the Portland area. He added, though, that it’s important to recognize the subtle Latino influence in Portland despite this.
“I don’t think that Latinos in Maine exactly feel that it’s important to represent [their cultures],” Sutherland said. “Because they’re a minority and because of the recession and of the recent immigration issues in the U.S., it probably doesn’t feel like a good time to celebrate Latino heritage.”
Carey also made several interesting predictions for future cultural developments in Portland, predicting a gradual cultural exchange and evolution.
“I think you’re going to see both things happening, that is, a celebration of cultures and a blending of them, a sort of hybridization,” the professor said. “It’s hard to say that it’s a linear process, so it may kind of come and go, but there are different sorts of efforts that make it more visible over time.”
In Carey’s opinion, Portland’s Latino population is remarkably vibrant, despite its slight disunity and small size. He said that Maine’s Latino population is a novelty of ethnic variety in comparison to many other U.S. Latino and Hispanic populations.
“There’s a tremendous amount of diversity in Portland’s Latino community,” Carey said. “But they’re already experiencing a sort of cultural exchange. They’re really learning about each other’s cultures.”
This cultural exchange, Carey and Sutherland explained, appears from Latinos to non-Latino Mainers. Sutherland said in reference to Primo Cubano and Grupo Esperanza — the recently disbanded salsa band, “There are these white guys like Eric Winter [from Primo Cubano] and Dylan Blanchard [from Grupo Esperanza] who’re representing something that isn’t in their heritage.”
There are other shreds of proof of the Latino presence in Portland. On the website Portland Food Map, there are 15 Latino and Hispanic restaurants listed. This includes newcomer Sabor Latino, Zapoteca — the new high-end Mexican establishment with its delicate ceviches and exceptional margaritas, and the long-running, popular Salvadoran restaurant, Tu Casa, where you can get some mean burritos and fried plantains.
Portland local food blogger Lindsay Sterling is the creator of the blog “Immigrant Kitchens.” She has worked with Latino and Hispanic immigrants in their own kitchens to learn about their native cuisines.
Sterling has had sixty private cooking lessons so far. Her quest is fairly simple: good food and good people.
“My extreme curiosity about how ethnic foods were made gave me the initial gumption to start asking immigrants for cooking lessons,” Sterling said. “But now I’m driven at least as much by the thrill of finding out that the world, contrary to what is being presented in the news, isn’t filled with bad people.”
Certainly, there are complex economic, cultural and political factors weighing in here, as Cabezas, Sutherland and Carey contend. In Carey’s view, the changes involved with the introduction of new cultures are incredibly complex.
“We should be doing more celebration of Latino culture.” And this Carey said, is not easy and not always as simple as just doing it.
But Sterling seems to believe that it’s much simpler.
“A simple ‘hello’ and ‘where are you from?’ from the native is like the sun breaking through the fog and we see each other more clearly,” Sterling said. For her, through talk, food and a little understanding, people can embrace each other.