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Despite struggles, Goombay Festival celebrates

It’s a creature from another world.

Imagine a dragon-fish-peacock dancing down the street to the beat of drums and cowbells. He twists, hops, and shakes with every slap of the drum. Although it’s uncertain whether this creature is frightening or beautiful, he is undoubtedly mesmerizing.

The 36th annual Miami/Bahamas Goombay Festival celebrating Bahamian culture is taking place this weekend in Coconut Grove. The creature belongs to Junkanoo, the Bahamian parade that expresses the traditional culture of the islands. During the Junkanoo “rush,” the mini parade of musicians and its creature-leader rambled from Hibiscus Street to Douglas Road on Grand Avenue. The streets began ringing at noon Saturday; the festival continues until Sunday evening.

Ronnie Cash, 53, is the man behind the multi-animal mask. He’s been partaking in festivals since he was 8 years old, but only recently took on the role at the head of the parade. He moved here from the Bahamas 15 years ago.

“Once that music starts my body just goes,” Cash said. “It’s like a natural response in me. It doesn’t stop until the music stops.”

Just as Cash rushes on with the sound of the music, the festival attempts to continue despite a difficult year. Goombay typically takes to the streets in June, but this year the event was planned two months later than customary.

The chairwoman of Goombay’s board, Dorothy Lee, said activities had to be reduced after funding didn’t come through. “We had to cut down on the length of the festival because of sponsorship,” she said.

This historical event commemorates the first Bahamian settlers and celebrates the culture of everyone who grew up in the neighborhood those immigrants first settled, Coconut Grove. On display are seven panels of exhibits highlighting the history of schools, churches, and the community in the Grove.

Leona Cooper-Baker, chairwoman of the historical board for the festival, said the original purpose of the festival was to bring the old Bahamian flair to South Florida.

“Realistically it isn’t like it used to be,” Cooper-Baker said, referring to events that have been cut.

The festival drew fewer vendors this year, and the gaps between stands and tents were large in places, but the spirit of Junkanoo was never in question.

Paul Brown was standing along Grand Avenue awaiting the Junkanoo rush. Both his parents are Bahamian and he said it’s important to spread traditions from one generation to the next. He admitted people were slow to join, but just down the block Hudson and Hudson Catering had sold out its first batch of lobster and shrimp.

“We’re here to celebrate different cultures in the islands,” said Shereal Richardson, a worker at the catering booth. “You don’t know what you’ll see out here.”