Teresa Cotroneo still vividly remembers 30 years ago when she was a dancer in Folklorama’s Italy-Sicily pavilion when she was just 12 years old. The first-generation Italian-Canadian was up on the stage when a notable young man made an entrance.
"He was someone who everyone adored in the community," she recalls. "Two of my friends were on stage beside me and he walked in and they both elbowed me at the same time."
The fact that she kept her footing was perhaps a sign that Cotroneo would have a stabilizing future as the executive director of Folklorama, a position she has held since January of 2018. She came to the position steeped in the festival’s multicultural culture, first in the Italian pavilions and then in the larger organization.
"I know what’s going on behind the scenes... the pavilion romances, and hoping so-and-so will show up to see your show," she says.
"You’re up there, you’re performing, you’re sharing your culture, but behind the scenes, there is so much more to it. Really it’s those personal stories and personal moments that, I think, drives my passion."
Passion has been required to sustain Folklorama over its 50-year history. Indeed, in its semi-centennial, it offers a necessarily galvanizing view of multiculturalism at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment has reached a boiling point not just in North America, but around the world. Beyond the cavalcade of costumes, music and food, Folklorama, now more than ever, makes a political statement about cultural pride.
"Seeing all of what’s taking place, this is a place where we celebrate culture and we can do that in safety and pride," Cotroneo says. "And people are definitely excited to be able to share that with each other.
"It’s a unique thing to Winnipeg. Canada has tons of multicultural aspects but this festival has heightened that in this city. So I think it’s definitely a source of pride, and is obviously a passion for tens of thousands of volunteers who take part every year.
"Once you get into the fold of Folklorama, you’re a lifer."
Does being in charge of Folklorama require some ambassadorial talents?
I would definitely say so. I think that comes from understanding where a lot of the communities are coming from, from having grown up in a community and knowing the different nuances of doing so, as well as being a first-generation Canadian. I know how tied to the culture I still was when I was growing up.
My grandparents, for instance, they never spoke English. And that’s the same story for so many people. A lot of people came here with two suitcases and worked really, really hard and made something of themselves. And that’s a common denominator across the cultures, whether you were an immigrant 50 years ago or you’re coming here now.
People don’t realize that, beyond the festival, Folklorama is a year-long operation. So what’s going on at Folklorama in, say, January?
When people ask me where I work and I say Folklorama, they always ask: ‘What are you doing the rest of the year?’ So that’s obviously one of the best-kept secrets.
It’s more than a full-time job to be honest. We have a team of 12 that work year-round to make it all happen.
In January, we’re already starting meetings with our pavilions. So at that point, we’re already done all the planning and licence applications because a little-known fact is the pavilions and the communities actually apply to us every year to take part. We don’t actively approach them, and people assume that we do.
So in January, we start meeting with them and planning the year ahead: what needs to take place and everything else from an operations perspective. And our other business divisions are working very hard and they’re very active in the educational settings, in the teachings and talent programs. That time of year, we’re also getting ready for our annual general meeting... so all those fun things.
Name your three favourite Italian restaurants.
I’m going to have to say Tre Visi (Cafe) on Grosvenor. It’s always definitely been a favourite. The gnocchi are amazing. I do love Bellissimo but, although it’s Italian and Italian-owned, they sway in their cuisine. And I still go to Colosseo Ristorante quite a bit. I enjoy the patio in the summertime.
The funny thing is: I don’t go to a lot of Italian restaurants. The sauce is never as good as your mom’s when you’re Italian.
What’s your favourite local festival, not counting Folklorama?
I’m going to have to say the Fringe (Festival). I don’t get to go as much as I used to, before this job. Festival du Voyageur is a close second... except that I hate winter.
What’s your favourite travel destination, not counting Italy?
I’ve been to Greece a couple of times and I absolutely am in love with it. In the winter, I’m definitely a Cuba baby. I’ve been there five times.
What’s the last great book you read?
I finally caught up and read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which was terrifying in a lot of ways, and a good reminder about humanity and what it can do.
Folklorama continues until Aug. 17.
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