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Latin Americans still dancing the Slovak nights away

The lights were dimmed. The music was Latin. It was three o'clock on a spring morning and 25 couples were still boogying. Ramone M, a Mexican-American, turned to an acquaintance with a loose grin and said, "Hey buddy, I tell you what. Slovak women love Latinos."
The scene was Fiesta Latina, a monthly Latin American party in Bratislava which, if you like the festive Latino culture, is the place to be. Bratislava fiestas - where Latin music is played and Latin dancing is learned, brushed up on, and enjoyed - often go on until the morning light, and are routinely attended by hundreds of Slovaks and Latinos.
Although the Latin American community in Slovakia is not large - its members put the number in Bratislava, the Slovak city with the most Latinos, at about 50 - their culture has a strong impact on the night life of the capital. This is due, say Latinos, to the enthusiasm of Slovaks for Latin American dance and music, and to the propensity of Latin people to celebrate and spread their culture.


Miguel A. Mendez, the founder of the dance troupe Latino Flash, poses with Brazilian dancers at a party in July.
photo: Courtesy Fiesta Latina

Fiesta Latina
September 1, Dom kultúry Trenčín
September 16 and October 14, Spoločenský Dom Trnávka, Bratislava


Latino Flash
August 24, Charlie's Pub, Bratislava perfomance followed by a dance party


Latin dance school
Information: Karlova Ves afternoon school, or for adult Latin dance lessons call: 07/6531 4631 or 254 134


The lights were dimmed. The music was Latin. It was three o'clock on a spring morning and 25 couples were still boogying. Ramone M, a Mexican-American, turned to an acquaintance with a loose grin and said, "Hey buddy, I tell you what. Slovak women love Latinos."

The scene was Fiesta Latina, a monthly Latin American party in Bratislava which, if you like the festive Latino culture, is the place to be. Bratislava fiestas - where Latin music is played and Latin dancing is learned, brushed up on, and enjoyed - often go on until the morning light, and are routinely attended by hundreds of Slovaks and Latinos.

Although the Latin American community in Slovakia is not large - its members put the number in Bratislava, the Slovak city with the most Latinos, at about 50 - their culture has a strong impact on the night life of the capital. This is due, say Latinos, to the enthusiasm of Slovaks for Latin American dance and music, and to the propensity of Latin people to celebrate and spread their culture.

"Slovaks appreciate our culture very much," said Miguel A. Méndez Lara, founder of Latin Flash, a Latin dance troupe made up of Slovak dancers. "We have a very close bond with the Slovak people, because they, like Latinos, are very friendly."

Méndez, a 33 year old Nicaraguan with seemingly boundless energy, is responsible for most of the Latin American cultural activities in Bratislava. Aside from choreographing and directing Latino Flash, as well as deejaying Latino nights in Bratislava clubs, he runs an afternoon school in the Bratislava suburb of Karlova Ves, where he and his colleagues teach the Spanish language and Latin dancing to over 40 children. In addition, Méndez organises the monthly Fiesta Latina.

"The idea of Fiesta Latina is to consolidate the group of people who like Latino dancing and music, but who don't have anywhere to go," said Méndez, who dreams of someday opening a Latin American culture centre in Slovakia. "But my main obstacle in spreading Latin American culture here is money, not limited interest."

One of Méndez's biggest successes to date has been "Korzo Party, Fiesta Latina", a procession that ran through Bratislava's Old Town and culminated in live Latin American music and dancing on Hlavné námestie (Main Square) July 29. The event was organized to help create an atmosphere of racial tolerance in Bratislava in the wake of increased violence against minority groups. The response was overwhelming, with the square filled to capacity for only the third time in the past year.

"Latino music and culture is popular in Slovakia because Slovaks and Latin Americans have similar temperaments and we both love to celebrate," said Jana Chudá, a spokeswoman for the event organisers. "It is all the more remarkable considering that no Latin clubs exist in Slovakia."

Of the Latinos in Slovakia, Cubans constitute the highest number, a fact explained by the tight relations between the two nations before the 1989 Velvet Revolution overturned communism in the former Czechoslovakia. During that period, Cuba and Czechoslovakia exchanged students and professionals on a wide scale. According to the Cuban Embassy in Bratislava, about 100 Cubans live in Slovakia, approximately 20 of whom reside in Bratislava.

"Because of our years of having a close relationship with Czechoslovakia, there exist many personal ties between our two countries, many marriages and many close friendships," said Roberto E. Marrero Morales, first secretary of the Cuban Embassy. "It is not unusual to hear Czech or Slovak even in the streets of Havana."

But with relations between Slovakia and Cuba cooled for political reasons, student exchanges have slowed to a trickle. And as Slovakia looks more toward creating ties with the rest of Europe, every year fewer students come to study from Latin America as a region. According to the Ministry of Education, only 17 Latin American students attended Slovak universities in 1998-99. In 1999-2000 that number dwindled to 10, with only one new Latin American applicant.

When asked what they missed most about home, many Latin Americans say the night life. "Bratislava's night life is not as active as that in Cuba," said Morales. "In Bratislava there is nowhere to go at ten o'clock at night. In Cuba, that's when things get started." Latin Americans also find the Slovak winters gruesome. But the most unpleasant part of life in Bratislava, especially for those with noticeably darker skin, is racism.

"It's difficult," admitted Méndez, who was beaten up in 1993 after having lived for nine years in Slovakia without any problems. "I try not to go out at night, and when I do I take taxis. In my country certain places are very dangerous, so you just don't go there. But in Bratislava, I feel like I could be attacked at any time."

"These [racial] problems are caused by people with no vision of life or tolerance," continued Méndez. "It is very sad, because otherwise, Slovaks are fantastic people. If I didn't otherwise feel good in Slovakia, I wouldn't have lived here for the last 15 years."

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