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Lowriders, great food, small businesses shine a new light on Southwest Detroit at Fiesta Del Rio festival

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Erik Howard remembers Detroit’s Mexican Festival in Hart Plaza and how it made him feel.

There were other festivals, but that one was a big, sprawling love letter to Mexican culture.

Now, he’ll take part in the first annual Fiesta Del Rio on Saturday, Aug. 27, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the West Riverfront Park. Participants can expect a lowrider car show, a taste of Southwest Detroit cuisine, kids events, music, including a special performance from Grammy Award winner Ozomatli. It’ll also introduce small business owners to the community.

The Fiesta Del Rio will feature a lowrider car show and music from Ozomatli. Photo courtesy of Ozoatli

The Fiesta Del Rio will feature a lowrider car show and music from Ozomatli.
Photo courtesy of Ozoatli

As a native Southwest Detroiter, Howard, executive director of Young Nation, which started in 2008, has helped to shape – and in some cases redefine – what lowrider culture could be in Southwest Detroit. It gives youth an opportunity to apply their own creativity to the popular hobby. However, most practitioners would consider it a lifestyle.

Lowrider culture is best exemplified by customized cars, often with showy add-ons, rims, and more. It’s even extended into bicycling. The Fiesta Del Rio is a great place to showcase this love of car culture.

“This is reminiscent of the old Mexican festival at Hart Plaza,” Howard says. “I think there’s something nostalgic about this. It kind of feels like we’re reclaiming something that we lost as a community.”

Howard fell in love with the lowrider culture in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. His purpose is to tap into the best aspects of lowrider culture that promotes youth development principles. It’s an inter-generational affair, which carries with it a broader lifestyle that cements a group of traditions and influences, camaraderie, collaboration, art and culture.

It’s often an expensive pastime and is usually done in groups that support and build each other up.

“Every lowrider group is a microcosm of a healthy sustainable community,” Howard says. “By healthy, I mean a community that is supportive of itself and by sustainable that it can maintain itself and take care of its own needs with the assets that exist. Our job is drawing on those connections.”

The festival is a collaboration made possible by the Ideal Group, the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, Southwest Detroit Business Association, and other sponsors.

Marc Pasco, director of communications with the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, sees this as the natural progression of their work.

“The riverfront is a tremendous destination,” he says. “If you look at the riverfront from eight years ago, it’s been completely transformed. The abandoned buildings are gone. There are apartments being built. That revitalized riverfront is contributing to a revitalized economy. The more reasons we can give people to come to the riverfront, we fully expect that vibrancy – that transformation – to continue.”

Moreover, Pasco sees a time in the very near future where Southwest Detroiters will really be able to experience the connectivity of it all – how it connects with other neighbors, including Midtown and Downtown.

“I think it’s exciting that we have an ethic festival of this size and scope that people are able to celebrate in the city of Detroit,” Pasco says. “This is a return of an ethic festival. It’s a pretty exciting time.”

Toby and Taresa Forman are a part of SW Detroit’s growing lowrider culture. Photo Erik Howard

Toby and Taresa Forman are a part of SW Detroit’s growing lowrider culture.
Photo: Erik Howard

Frank Venegas Jr., who sits on the board of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy and is chairman and CEO of Ideal Group, has worked decades to see this type of collaboration become a reality, says Sylvia Guken, who serves on the executive team of the Ideal Group. She’s worked with Venegas for 25 years.

“Frank felt that it was important to celebrate Southwest Detroit,” she says. “(He) also recognizes that we have not had a Latin festival in the city of Detroit for a number of years.”

Guken refers to the Fiesta Del Rio as an inaugural event with hope that the businesses involved with the festival and the participants can help make it a sustainable event for years to come.

Any time you bring groups of people together, she says, it demands a certain amount of leadership, cooperation and compromise. In order for an area to thrive, alliances must be formed inside the community.

“We’re building leadership and alliances inside the community to help not only with Fiesta, but with other community issues,” Guken says. “Some people call it capacity building, I call it grooming and growing leadership.”

She expects big family attendance and for people to be “wowed” by Southwest Detroit’s offerings, whether it’s the food, small businesses, nonprofits or robots created by elementary and high school students, which will be featured at the event.

“This fiesta is celebrating folks coming together and the progress that they made,” Guken says.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/fiestadelriodetroit.

– Top photo: Erik Howard

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