Although we tend to associate the Spanish-speaking communities in Toronto with people from Central and South America, a small number of them came from Spain. Furthermore, some of these Spanish immigrants have been at the centre of important Hispanic institutions, including the Hispanic Fiesta, one of the largest artistic celebrations of the Spanish-speaking communities in the city.
Its founder, Fernando Valladares, arrived in Toronto from Spain in the early 1970s, forced to flee the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. When Mr. Valladares was called to join the military, he did not respond, and after deciding against his initial inclination towards the priesthood, he felt the time was right to leave Spain and come to Canada where his father resided.
Unlike many other Spanish immigrants who left Spain and came to Canada during the Franco dictatorship, Mr. Valladares decided to remain here after the regime collapsed in 1975. He had already begun to develop his English; he worked for a community newspaper, and he was interacting with local politicians. Along with Tony O’Donohue, Rodrigo Ponce, Jose Fernandez and others, he decided to form an organization devoted to the small but growing Hispanic community in Toronto. The timing could not have been better, for around this same period, large numbers of immigrants were beginning to arrive in the city in response to the wave of military coups that swept through Central and South America. There was also a flow of economic migrants from the region, who were arriving as temporary workers on three-month visas, then returning home. Bringing together Hispanic people from different countries that had come to Toronto for different reasons was a challenging task for Mr. Valladares and his associates.
Mr. Valladares had been inspired by the growth and the integration of the Greek, Italian and Portuguese communities of Toronto. Although they had been in the city much longer than Hispanic peoples, he could see that they had organized themselves and taken the necessary steps to carve out a place for themselves within society. They had their own associations, businesses, charities and even members of parliament. Fernando and his partners wanted the same thing for Hispanic Torontonians and in 1981, while working as an assistant for Toronto Alderman Tony O’Donohue, the Las Flores Charitable Foundation was born. Its aim was to unite the voices of the Hispanic communities, bringing together under one umbrella organization all of the different nationalities and cultures that comprised this group.
It did not take long for Las Flores Charitable Foundation to spring into action, both at home and abroad. During the volcanic eruption in Colombia in the mid-1980s, one of the deadliest of the 20th century, Las Flores worked in conjunction with Hispanic media to provide assistance. It teamed up with Red Cross and channelled donations from Toronto to the affected region in Colombia. It also responded to other natural disasters, providing relief during the earthquakes that struck Mexico and Chile during the 1980s and 1990s. These actions spread the word amongst Latin American countries that Canada was a benevolent nation with an interest in helping other countries during disasters. Las Flores became known as an important association that could put words into action.
Using its political contacts, Las Flores joined Mr. O’Donohue in the Water for Life project that provided resources to a Honduran community to open potable water wells. It also brought children from Hispanic countries who had chronic illnesses to be treated at Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto. One of the most memorable moments for Mr. Valladares was when the organization brought 40 blind children from a rural Honduran community to visit Niagara Falls. Listening to these children describe the beauty of the land that they could not “see” was an important moment in his life. In 1994, Las Flores officially opened Villa Las Flores, a nonprofit housing complex with 134 apartments, located at 10 Dora Avenue in Toronto.
As with most organizations, funding was a challenge, and so the team behind Las Flores started the International Hispanic Fiesta as a fundraising tool. More than 20 years later, and despite not having produced a profit and at times even losing money, the Fiesta is still going strong, thanks to the devoted work of its members who have managed to finance this large celebration.
In 1989, after previously operating at the Carlsberg Pavilion at the Exhibition Place, and the Medieval Times building at the Arts and Crafts pavilion, the Fiesta relocated to Harbourfront Centre, where it became one of the largest annual events for the centre and the largest gathering and expression of Hispanic peoples in Canada. The Fiesta celebrates all aspects of its diverse communities, bringing in artists from Latin America, Africa and Spain to enrich this four-day event.
The Fiesta not only contributes to the well-being of Toronto’s Hispanic communities, it also illustrates the importance of art and culture to the development of a healthy city and for immigrants in their new societies. For the artists, academics, musicians and writers who were forced to flee their countries and live in exile, the freedom to express themselves is important. The Fiesta provides the space and opportunity for them to communicate their personal, political and philosophical ideas through the arts. Through their work, they help address important issues for Latin Americans living in Toronto and put their struggles as members of the Diaspora into a global context. Many Hispanic artists have been able to join forces with other local artists as well as artists from all over Canada, and together they have added to the overall creativity and political awareness of the city and the country.
In 1997, the Fiesta moved to Mel Lastman Square at Yonge and Sheppard, where it remains to this day. Toronto has changed drastically since Fernando Valladares arrived as a teenager in the 1970s. Waves of migrants from all over the world have transformed the city for the better, creating a unique mixture of cultures and a unique identity. Like Mr. Valladares, many of these newcomers have contributed to the city’s growth and made it a better place to live for everyone. Today, the story of the Las Flores Charitable Foundation and the Hispanic Fiesta, now 31 years old, is firmly embedded in the culture of our city.
Interview of Fernando Valladares
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.