Pan Am Fiesta History
The origin of Lakewood’s oldest community-wide celebration has been told many times – how two neighbors who lived in the Greenmeadow neighborhood of Lakewood Village (now part of Long Beach) chatted over a backyard fence about the opening of a new park across from Mark Twain Elementary School. Recollections of that conversation, reported in the April 21, 1955 edition of the Long Beach Independent, gave 1945 as the year that the two neighbors talked. Later accounts say the origin year was 1946 or 1947.
But all accounts agree that neighbors Jesse Solter, a member of the Lakewood Lions Club, and Walter Montano, a Bolivian immigrant, agreed that the new park should honor the spirit of Pan-American friendship. Closer ties between the United States and the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean were a cornerstone of American diplomacy during World War II. Solter and Montano hoped the Pan-American spirit would endure in newly post-war Lakewood. It’s symbol, they thought, would be Pan-American Park.
When ground was broken for the park in September 1945, Latin American consular representatives were on hand to celebrate with Solter, Montano, and other Lakewood Village residents. The park was completed the following year, and in 1947 the first Pan-American Festival was held with Costa Rica as the honored nation. Inez Lehman, a social studies teacher at Lakewood Junior High School (now Bancroft Middle School), organized the first flag exchange. In the following years, the countries honored were Mexico, 1948: Argentina, 1949; Bolivia. 1950; Brazil. 1951; Chile, 1952; Colombia, 1953; Cuba, 1954; and the Dominican Republic, 1955.
Lakewood’s tradition of international friendship was recognized by the United States Information Agency in 1956 with a Certificate of Merit “for outstanding service to world understanding” through festival events. Even today, the Pan-American Festival is credited as being the oldest community-based appreciation of pan-American cultures and peoples in the United States.
The early Pan-American Festivals included a parade, a flag presentation that highlighted the honored county, a band concert, and a dinner dance.
The festival soon became a two-day event, with folklorico dancing and awards to student essay contest winners on Friday and the Saludos Amigos parade and flag exchange on Saturday afternoon followed by a reception for consular officials at the Lakewood Golf Course clubhouse and a community dance at Pan-American Park in Lakewood Village. In 1960, all parade and festival events moved to Lakewood locations.
By 1962, the Pan-American Festival filled an entire week, beginning with the El Comienzo luncheon on Monday, an announcement of a new Pan-American Hostess, and student presentations in both English and Spanish. The festival concluded with a two-hour parade that ended at the Lakewood Civic Center.
Notable guests participated, including film and television actors Peter Graves, Fernando Lamas and Leo Carrillo, as well as champion athletes Pat McCormick and Susan Atwood and dignitaries from South and Central American nations. In recognition of Lakewood’s contract plan for law enforcement, Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz and Sheriff Peter Pitchess both served as parade Grand Marshals.
In the years after 1978 (when floats and marching bands no longer paraded), festival events, entertainment, and carnival rides began with a pancake breakfast at Mayfair Park and a display of historical photographs and programs telling the history of the Pan American Festival Association. The traditional trouping of flags opened the weekend’s dance and music performances that ended on Sunday evening with a free concert.
Today, fiesta food booths have been joined by food trucks and craft vendors selling their wares. Civic organizations offer information about health, public safety, environmental conservation, and neighborhood improvement. Cultural awareness activities enlighten young minds. The bright lights, laughs, and thrills of a small-town carnival remain part of the fun.