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ExpoNica offers a little of Latin America in South Florida

Special to The Miami Herald
It’s been almost a year since Miami resident Natalia Rosa last tasted a Nicaraguan Rosquilla, a popular cookie from the Central American nation.

“I love the taste because, once I eat one, I want to eat the entire bag,” said Rosa, whose Nicaraguan boyfriend, Jose Martinez, introduced her to the snack. “I fell in love with the food,” added Rosa, who is from Cuba.

Rosquillas — the Nicaraguan equivalent of doughnut-shaped Italian biscotti best served with a hot cup of joe — aren’t terribly popular in South Florida, so chances of finding them in a well-known store are slim.

But thanks to the organizers of ExpoNica, an annual celebration of all things Nicaragua — and, indeed, Latin America — the odds are a little better this time of year.

For the past two years, both Rosa and Martinez — and more than 35,000 others — have visited the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition grounds, 10901 Coral Way, to buy a couple of bags of the snack — as well as crafts and artwork from Latin American vendors at ExpoNica — The Fair of the Americas.

Last week, 130 vendors from across Latin America flew to South Florida to sell the latest in artisan pottery and jewelry, clothes and art. Aside from purchasing products, visitors from throughout the Americas had 20 food tents to choose from and 60 musical bands to follow.

Juana Guitan Rizo, who lives in Nicaragua, says coming to Miami is about more than just making money. She has sold in the event for 18 years.

“We make some cash and we enjoy some time off to enjoy some family time,” said Rizo, who sells kitchenware in a market in Managua, and has family in South Florida.

The three-day event was founded by Eduardo Arroyo and his five brothers as a way to preserve Hispanic culture.

In 1991, the fair began with an exhibition of Nicaraguan artisan pottery and folk art. Arroyo said he noticed South Florida’s diversity, so the nonprofit incorporated other countries such as Brazil, Peru, Chile, and the Dominican Republic and much of Latin America, as well.

“It’s an event unique in its own kind because we celebrate culture,” he said in Spanish. “There are lots of people whose kids were born here, but know nothing about their heritage.”

Arroyo says the expo can help parents educate children about their roots.

Cristina Gonzalez has been attending the fair for five years. She says the fair is the perfect way to catch up with old friends.

“This is almost like being back home,” said Gonzalez, who enjoyed munching on carne asada and gallo pinto, a typical Central American dish which includes grilled steak and rice and beans.

Gonzalez attended the event with her family, and said she couldn’t wait to dance to her favorite native musicians like La Nueva Compañia and Los Toros Band from the Dominican Republic.

“This is a way of having a little piece of your country,” said Gonzalez, who planned on dancing the night away after eating her meal.

Hilton Don Aire Lopez, a dancer of the Comparsa Aly, a Nicaraguan carnival style band, said the expo was a great way to promote music.

“We put our country’s name on the map,” Lopez said. “We represent the folklore and street dancing. People have welcomed us and we have given them all we got.”

The band had 19 members — some decked in feathers and high boots — marching around the fairgrounds and on stage.

For 14 years, Maria Vazquez and Matias Menchu, a married couple from Guatemala, have been selling hand-made designed shirts typical of their country.

“We tell them [customers] where we are located in Guatemala and they come visit us to buy our clothes, so we are letting people know what our country is about,” said Menchu, who owns a clothing store in Totonicapan, a Guatemalan city near the Mexican border, known as Manhattan.

Arroyo adds that the event isn’t only beneficial for vendors, but for the local economy, as well, as it attracts people from far and wide.

“All of the vendors pay taxes and stay in our hotels,” he said. “It has an . . . impact.”

As for Rosa, she looks forward to enjoying her bag of Rosquillas.

“I love having them at breakfast time,” said Rosa, who took a bite from a Rosquilla, recently shipped from Nicaragua.

For information on next year’s event, go to www.exponica.org.

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