The Pan American Festival, Lakewood’s annual celebration of international friendship with the countries of Latin America, exemplifies Lakewood’s values of neighborliness and volunteerism.
In 1945, two Lakewood Village neighbors and fellow Lakewood Lions Club members—Dr. Walter Montano, a former Bolivian consul, and Jesse Solter, a schoolteacher—shook hands over a backyard fence, pledging to begin a community program that would foster good relations with their Latin American “neighbors.” In 1945, as a result of Montano’s, Solter’s, and the Lions Club’s negotiations with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Pan American Park—the first recreation area honoring Pan-Americanism in the nation—was dedicated, and an olive tree was planted to symbolize peace and friendship between the United States and the members of theOrganization of American States. In 1946, the Pan American Festival Association was founded, and the Lakewood Lions Club invited the Latin American Consular Association to a picnic in Pan American Park to celebrate the first anniversary of the park’s dedication.
In 1948, the first Pan American Festival was held in Pan American Park (which was part of part of unincorporated Lakewood until it was annexed to Long Beach), and Mexico was the honored country. In 1949, the festival began the custom of honoring one of the countries in the Organization of American States each year. In 1982, the festival began honoring all of the countries of Central and South America together under the theme of Pan-American friendship. The weeklong festivities kicked off with the El Comienzo luncheon, bringing together residents, business leaders, city officials, and the Latin American Consular Corps. The week’s events included the Pan American Hostess and Queen contest (in which the hostess was a Lakewood girl and the queen was from the honored country), and the Consular Banquet and Ball, sponsored by the Lions Club and honoring the Latin American consuls, held at the Lakewood Country Club.
The festival finale each year was the Saludos Amigos parade, with dignitaries from the honored country leading the parade of floats, dance groups, equestrians, and marching bands. In 1979, the festival highlight became a three-day Pan American Fiesta, which replaced the Saludos Amigos parade.
There were also many other activities. The Lakewood Rotary Club and Lakewood Kiwanis Club sponsored Spanish and English speak-off contests for high school students. The annual Pan American Poetry Contest was sponsored by the Orpheus Chapter of the California Federation of Chaparral Poets.
The flag-exchange ceremony, one of the festival’s oldest traditions, was begun in 1947 by Inez Lehman, a ninth-grade social studies teacher at Bancroft Junior High School (known as Lakewood Junior High School until 1955). In the early years, the flag exchange was held in Pan American Park, and the ninth-graders at Bancroft marched in a procession dressed in the colors of the flag they carried. The ninth-grade students also studied the honored country’s history and culture in school.
The festival became a community-wide project with nearly every community organization participating in the celebration, as the 1967 Pan American Hostess Mary Jo Wagner recounted: “Every organization had something going on. And that’s what made it unique, I think, was all that participation.” The Pan American Festival organization, a group of civic-minded volunteers representing the community’s local service clubs and businesses, planned and coordinated the festival during the year ahead.
The Lakewood Jaycees started “Operation Friendship,” an exchange program in which a Jaycee from the honored country and his wife stayed in a Lakewood Jaycee’s home during the Pan American Festival Week. Original kid Margie Lehner Armstrong recounted that it was a “special day for us—I think the closest I ever felt with a sense of community was at the Pan Am days.” The spirit of Pan-Americanism in Lakewood continues, as reflected by Lakewood’s Pan American Room at city hall, featuring a mosaic of the flags of the 21 nations in the Organization of American States. When Lakewood dedicated its first three parks in 1957, they were named for the Latin American heroes Simon Bolivar, Jose del Valle, and Jose de San Martin.
Today, Lakewood’s tradition of celebrating Pan Americanism continues. The annual Pan American Festival still kicks off each May with the El Comienzo Luncheon, followed by the three-day Pan American Fiesta at Mayfair Park. The festivities include amusement rides, music and entertainment, and food, craft, community and cultural booths.
The Pan American Festival is the nation’s only community festival of Pan-Americanism outside of Washington, D.C.
Source: The Lakewood Story