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Conga Caliente draws thousands for music, food and fun

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Published:   |   Updated: November 3, 2013 at 11:49 PM

TAMPA — Meandering through the crowd inside Al Lopez Park Sunday, Mark Figueroa was caught up in the good vibes.

Driving percussion and blaring horns from the nearby stage mixed with pleasant November weather and wafting flavors of food in the air.

It was the 10th Conga Caliente, an event celebrating family, Latin culture, music and food in addition to a health fair.

“Just getting everyone in the community together like this and there be no headaches, no hassles, no problems, and you can bring your family is great,” said Figueroa, 45, who came with his wife, two daughters, sister and niece. This is his seventh time coming to the event.

The crowd, which was estimated between 35,000 and 50,000 by event official Maritza Astorquiza, ranged in ages and backgrounds. That was another draw for the Figueroas.

“My biggest thing is that it’s a Latin festival and not just one. Not just Cubans, not just Puerto Ricans,” Gloria Figueroa, 44, said. “And they’re all coming together and doing their thing. … (The togetherness) is very important, especially in today’s time with people separating so much. We have a black president and if you’re in a certain group you’re supposed to back a certain person. I’d rather see everybody come together as one.”

The crowd, which drew a festival record 50,000 last year, swayed back and forth to the music. Young, old, group or single, the Latin rhythms moved just about all of the estimated 35,000 to 50,000 attendees.

Astorquiza said she encountered kids in strollers and adults using walkers during the day’s event, highlighting the diversity.

“I think if you look at the facial expressions, it tells a story,” she said. “I’m seeing families spending time with each other, interacting with each other and are comfortable. … In this event, the beautiful thing is the combination of ages, races, backgrounds, nationalities. What we try to do is celebrate a beautiful culture that’s living in the United States. We’re all living the American life.”

One of those who helped move the crowd was South Florida’s Leslie Grace. The performer, who has family in the area, said she enjoyed the energy she received from the crowd.

“Everybody out there was so lively,” Grace, 18, said. “It was good. The weather was great and we had a good time. What stood out to me the most is how people danced. Everyone was up on their feet. They were having a good time.”

There’s the possibility Grace will take part in an unofficial tradition that started last year by meringue singer Milly Quezada.

Quezada performed at Conga Caliente last year after having been nominated for a Latin Grammy. She played the congas and weeks later, won 2012 Best Contemporary Tropical Album during the 13th Annual Latin Grammy Awards ceremony.

Grace’s self-titled album is nominated for the Best Contemporary Tropical Album and she’ll be in Las Vegas for the affair in a little more than two weeks.

She also played the congas.

“Hopefully,” she said, laughing about the similarities. “Maybe God will shine down the light. It’s definitely just a prize for me to be nominated. It’s huge because I didn’t think it would happen so fast. As a young girl I always dreamed to be nominated for a Grammy and I definitely didn’t think it would happen as my first year of my career with my first album. And the people I’m nominated with are just great and have been doing this for years.”

edaniels@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @EDanielsTBO

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