Flavorful bash helps out charity

Organizers are already preparing for next spring's Arroz Con Mango fundraiser, which started as a keg party and has raised thousands for the Florida League Against Cancer.

For The Herald

In 1998, Cesar Cajigas had a keg party. And people still can't stop talking about it.

Then a Florida International University honors college student, Cajigas decided he could be doing more for the community. So he threw a party, charged at the door and donated the earnings to the Florida League Against Cancer.

Today, a group of friends continues his legacy, with an annual all-out fete. In May, the bash at the Coconut Grove Expo Center attracted 1,500 guests and raised more than $100,000.

''The party is a mixture of all kinds of things; it's a night of art, fashion, food and fun, bringing together people ages 8 to 80,'' explained Olga Marie Saizarbitoria, the party board's co-chair and Coral Gables resident.

In other words, the party is what Cubans would call a real Arroz Con Mango -- literally rice with mango, but also an expression that denotes an eclectic mixture that somehow comes together tastefully.

''I thought it was a good name for the party,'' said Saizarbitoria, who baptized the fundraiser with the phrase. 'Now, everybody calls us `The Arroz Con Mango Kids.' ''This year, the Arroz Con Mango Kids -- who are already preparing the next party -- managed to collect donations from restaurants around Miami like Havana Harry's and Versailles, which passed out medianoches at midnight. There was also a silent art auction and a fashion show by local designer Cristina Hevia.

'People dressed up, the attire was `tropical chic,' it was like a prom,'' said Saizarbitoria.

Bacardi provided a full bar, and Maroone Automotive Group, the key sponsor, donated a van for patient pickup to the Florida League Against Cancer.

Today, corporate sponsors are happy to help. But it wasn't always so. First, the Arroz Con Mango kids had to build a reputation.

The first year the party raised less than $1,000. The third year, they moved the party to Signature Gardens and raised $15,000.

Soon they were throwing the party out of warehouses and once even used the building where the popular nightclub Pawn Shop stands today. This May, the group charged $65 in advance for tickets and $80 at the convention center door, raising $120,000.

When asked what initially motivated him to get this ball rolling, Cajigas said: ``In college I got involved in a program of service learning, which forced me to confront societal problems and look for a solution. Almost everyone I know has been affected by cancer, and I was having these parties anyway, so I thought, why not do them for a good cause.''

Ignacio Abascal is one of them. A 26-year-old testicular cancer survivor, Abascal has been working with the Arroz Con Mango group since the beginning.

''The year we had it at Signature Gardens, I was just this 19-year-old kid, proud as hell when I brought a $600 check,'' he said. Then the second year I was involved I found out I had cancer the week before the party.''

The Florida League Against Cancer, which benefits from the fundraiser, provides services at no cost for low-income cancer patients. Since its doors opened, the league has treated 50,000 people and this year alone has 1,700 patients.

About Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist