Best buds Samantha Colon and Lizmari Calzada arrived at Tampa Bay Downs three hours before the salsa music began pouring around the racetrack Sunday, before the smell of roasted pork thickened the lunch hour breeze.
They came for the camaraderie of Megafest 2003. The sounds and smells reminded them of their native Puerto Rico, and they liked the Spanish flavor of the food, drink, speech and music.
But the teen girls were drawn for something in particular - the appearance of one of their favorite groups, Baby Rasta Y Gringo."Oh! Oh!" said Samantha, 14, at the mere mention of the name. The two girls clasped hands, keeping themselves from swooning to the dirt.
"Oh!" Samantha said. "I can't wait!"
"I . . . I," Lizmari, 13, stammered, grinned, then rolled her eyes. "Baby Rasta Y Gringo!"
Organizers at radio station WMGG-AM 820 like the sound of that. It's one of the reasons why the station began the Latin music festivals in 1997, the year it first went on the air. This is its way of sending a huge gracias to its listeners for making the station a success. With the area's ever-growing Hispanic population, promoters said it is an almost necessary event to bring the various Spanish-speaking groups together.
Ricardo Villalona, general manager for La Mega 820, said the event cost about $100,000 to produce. It featured 13 international acts that entertained on the 9-acre section of the track's grounds.
Artists included Jose Alberto "El Canario," Obbie Bermudez, DL1, Huey Dunbar, Jossie Estaban, Fulanito, Karen y Voltio, Mannikkomio, Monchy y Alexandra, Oro Solido, Puerto Rican Power and Son Callejero.
The station won't make money from the event, he said.
"We're always happy to break even," Villalona said. "This is to satisfy our listeners and give back to the community."
The festival returned after a two-year hiatus. It was canceled in 2001 following the events of Sept. 11. In 2002, Megafest never got off the ground because the lineup wasn't as good as the station wanted, said promotions director Mariangie Navarro. In the past, the concerts were held in a large parking lot at the Tampa Port Authority and drew a crowd of close to 20,000.
Organizers were expecting to near, if not top it, Sunday. The festival opened at 11 a.m. and lines for tickets - $10 for adults, free for kids under 10 - quickly stretched 100 feet and out into the parking lot. Cars jammed Hillsborough Avenue and Race Track Road.
Once inside the ring of food vendors, babies bounced in strollers to the thumps of salsa, merengue and bachata. Couples danced among blankets and beach towels decorated with the Dominican Republic flag.
Beef empanadas outnumbered hot dogs.
Samantha and Lizmari swayed to the beat, waiting anxiously for their favorites to jump on stage. Lizmari, who lives in Orlando, got a ride to Tampa this weekend just for the festival.
"It reminds us of the Fiestas Patronales in Puerto Rico," Lizmari said, referring to concerts the girls said could last up to a week. "This reminds us of home."