One of the advantages of growing up on Youngstown's East Side was the opportunity I had to establish close friendships with people of Hispanic heritage, particularly those from Puerto Rico.
My neighbors on Bruce Street were the Garcias, the Andujars, the Fuentes, the Ocasios, the Santiagos, the Rodriguezes, the Calderons, the Torreses, the Vasquezes and the Vargases.
Lou Bonilla and Bobby Arroyo were two of my best high school friends.
In fact, Lou and I were in the same homeroom class at East High School from 1966 to 1970.
I discovered a kinship with my Latino friends. Our fathers worked long, hard hours at Youngstown Sheet & amp; Tube Co.; our grandparents came to Youngstown to find a better way of life; we shared a deep love for baseball and softball; and we shared a commitment to God and the values established in the church.
My fondest memories of Puerto Rican culture, however, took place during the summers, when the annual Hispanic festival was at St. Rose of Lima Church.
St. Rose originally was on Himrod Avenue and was the first Puerto Rican parish in the Youngstown area. It was established in 1961.
The church hall was at 10 N. Fruit St., which would later become headquarters for the Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana, the city's primary Hispanic social service agency.
The parish moved to the building that once housed Coitsville High School on Struthers-Coitsville Road in 1976.
I remember the sounds of trumpets and guitars filling the air at the church grounds, and the smell of roasted pork emanating from a pig being turned on a spit over an open flame just made my mouth water.
You, too, can experience a sample of this rich heritage at the 39th annual Hispanic festival Thursday through Aug. 11 at the church grounds.
The festival features authentic Caribbean, Mexican, Puerto Rican and South American cuisine.
I plan on enjoying my two favorite Puerto Rican dishes -- pasteles and pastelillos.
My longtime friend Nilsa Diaz helped me explain the ingredients of both dishes.
Pasteles are a wonderfully blended mixture of green bananas, plantains (tropical banana plants), pork and a variety of vegetables. They are traditionally wrapped and served in banana leaves, but aluminum foil is used most often here.
Pastelillos are a floured tortilla filled with ground meat or pork and deep fried.
There will be live music and entertainment nightly as well as Latin dance performances.
A new twist will be participation events, including rock climbing, and -- get this -- sumo wrestling. I will stick to my favorite pastime -- eating.
As always, there will be nightly prize drawings and, like other festivals throughout the Valley, bingo and other games.
Another event specifically tailored for the Hispanic community is sponsored by Marion Heights United Methodist Church, 144 Woodland Ave., Campbell.
The church's Community Fair will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 17. The church has a Hispanic ministry, and will have free information on various topics, including real estate, immigration laws, legal help, and HIV and AIDS information.
Representatives from the OCCHA, Sky Bank and Youngstown State University also will be on hand.
A clown will entertain children, and there will be a variety of food and music.
For more information on the fair, contact Mayra Aquino, Hispanic ministry coordinator, at (330) 747-1706 or (330) 743-8541. The church pastor is Rick L. Oaks.
If you want a closer look at the sights, sounds and traditions of the area's Hispanic community, carve out some time to attend either of these events. You will be well-fed, well-entertained and well-informed.