Social gathering important to residents in the heart of the Eastside community

Published in the August 8 – 21, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life

By Elodia Benitez

Photo by Elodia Benitez * Young girls from Grupo Folklorico entertain the crowd of about 300 at the Party in the Park.

San Ysidro Park bustled with several hundred Gilroy neighbors enjoying time together in the cool evening. Folklorico dancers twirled their colorful skirts to a Mexican love song. A pony strolled through the grass carrying laughing kids on its back. And eager children pulled their parents along from game to game.

They all enjoyed the “Party in the Park” and family fitness event held July 20. Every summer, the community social event serves to bring people together and make new friends in Gilroy’s Eastside, a district set between the city’s downtown and U.S. 101 that is prominently made of Latino residents.

The smooth, cascading notes of a bachata dance weaved through the crowd. Paleteros sold flavored Icees and elotes, grilled Mexican corn on the cob smothered in cheese and chile. People greeted each other with friendly embraces as they gathered on the stone steps in front of the park’s handball courts.

Photo by Elodia Benitez * Two girls check out an arts and crafts booth at this year’s Party in the Park at San Ysidro Park in Gilroy’s Eastside neighborhood July 20.

“We look forward to it every year. The activities are a lot of fun,” said Gilroy resident Yolanda Castro-Lopez, watching her young son run toward the pony rides. “More importantly, the resources offered by these organizations help people feel at ease.”

That sense of ease was reflected in the faces of the participants throughout the evening’s entertainment of music and dance. The children of Grupo Folklorico Los Laureles delighted the crowd as they danced their traditional bailes. The Zumbistas gave a less traditional and more interactive performance. The zumba group practices its fitness dancing in the park during weekdays and welcomes everyone wanting to burn some calories through aerobic exercise to participate in the workout. Midway through the routine at Party in the Park, event coordinator Sandra Cruz invited anyone who wanted to join in the fun of the high-paced dance. Kids ran forward with peals of laughter and attempted to copy the Zumbistas’ fast-paced movements to the energetic music.

Various family-friendly activities were hosted by organizations that serve South Valley. They included Cal-Works, Foothills Community Health Center, and work2future Foundation. Each activity encouraged physical fitness and education. Kids enjoyed ring-toss games, old-fashioned hopscotch jumping contests, and an obstacle course. Little tigers and Spidermans sprang away from the face painting table. Kids who participated received backpacks and water bottles. Volunteers gave out raffle prizes for people who visited every organization’s table where parents and other community members could pick up information fliers explaining the services each organization provides including details on housing, medical, and employment assistance.

For Leisa Johnson, the work2future outreach coordinator, Party in the Park offered her a unique opportunity to interact with residents in the Eastside neighborhood.

“Just by being here and meeting families, I feel like companies and their representatives can offer information much more effectively,” she said. She paused to look out onto the crowd. “Look how people are smiling! Everyone is having a great time.”

Organizers modeled the original Party in the Park after San Jose’s popular Viva Parks! and Los Angeles’ Parks After Dark events designed to encourage neighbors to get to know one another through a summer celebration. Over the years, it found its niche in Gilroy’s calendar of events and now is an important annual social gathering in the heart of the Eastside community. Residents who live near the park hope to establish the event as a hub of cultural art and significance.

“This year I got the chance to walk around,” said Armando Franco, last year’s co-chair of the party and a local artist. “I like the fact that this event keeps growing every year. More people are attending, and we have more volunteers.”

One purpose of Party in the Park is to help to reduce San Ysidro Park’s reputation as a site of gang activity and violence, he said.

“Specifically for this park, a lot of people call it ‘Cholo Park,’” he said. The term is used in the Mexican-American community to describe a teenage boy who is a member of a street gang. “I’m out here two or three times a week. It’s nothing like that. There are so many people here, so many kids … so many brown kids. It’s a nice park and, unfortunately, because of its history it’s labeled as a bad park.”

He touched on a benefit about the annual celebration of the neighborhood for San Ysidro Park and why he works hard with others to set up the event.

“Providing resources for the community is one of the biggest goals for the people that plan Party in the Park,” he said. “I’m glad that they’re going to keep doing it. It empowers people, takes them away from fears and anxieties for the day. Gilroy is growing —  it’s about growing in the right direction.”

As the sun set and the shade of night crept across San Ysidro Park, volunteers packed tables away and the inflatable bounce houses sank to the ground as they deflated. Tuckered-out toddlers lay in their parents’ arms. Their older siblings waited in eager anticipation for the finale of the party. Residents unfolded their lawn chairs and organizers arranged hay bales around a screen. A beam shot from a digital projector at the blank space.

The night’s final entertainment was a special treat for Eastside families — a showing of the 2017 Disney animated film “Coco.” The movie celebrates the Latino culture with a story that follows a 12-year-old boy named Miguel who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead where he meets his deceased musician great-great-grandfather.

The showing of the film at Party in the Park served as a fitting tribute to the day’s events. As the movie came to life on the screen and the music swelled, the light from the projector also shined on the smiling faces of the men, women and children of the Eastside. Every summer they come together in a spirit of neighborhood fun for an annual party at San Ysidro Park.

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