The juxtaposition was jarring. Last Sunday in El Paso, Texas, a gunman who had posted an online manifesto decrying a "Hispanic invasion" killed 22 people at a Walmart, deliberately targeting Mexicans. Also last Sunday, Winnipeg kicked off Folklorama, the annual festival that showcases the culture of different ethnic groups, including Mexicans.
In a world in which ethnic hatred seems to be on the rise, this annual cultural celebration offers Winnipeg as a sanctuary where ethnic diversity is valued, not feared or scorned.
Fiftieth anniversaries are generally considered a landmark worthy of congratulations, and it should be so with Folklorama. Let’s raise a glass — ideally containing an imported beverage — to commend something Winnipeg does exceedingly well.
Since it began in 1970, Folklorama has grown into an event that is unmatched in the world. No other city attracts as many people to a festival of this type. It was named "the world’s largest and longest-running multicultural festival" by the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts.
The 45 pavilions receive more than 450,000 visits during the two-week run. For comparison’s sake, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival usually records about 100,000 paid tickets, the Winnipeg Folk Festival says its annual cumulative attendance is about 70,000, and the capacity of IG Field is about 33,000.
The enthusiastic attendance tells the story. Winnipeggers love nothing better than to party with people of different ethnicities, eager to explore their various cultures.
Please consider that fact in a worldwide backdrop. A growing number of countries are erecting anti-immigrant fencing. White nationalist radicals are increasingly seen as a global threat. The U.S. president speaks of banning all Muslims from coming into the U.S., calls Mexicans "rapists" and says some members of the U.S. Congress with brown skin should "go back where they came from."
This is the global context in which Winnipeggers embrace ethnic diversity. By visiting Folklorama pavilions, we’re saying, "I’m interested in cool things about your country." That attitude is the opposite of ethnic intolerance.
Not everyone is a fan. Some people regard Folklorama’s focus as too light and too shallow to be an effective foil to ethnic hostilities. They rightly point out how Folklorama generally steers clear of messy matters such as colonization, government-decreed racism and genocides.
But perhaps these weightier topics should be left to the first-rate presentations within the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. It depicts, with no-holds-barred depth, ethnic atrocities that must never be forgotten.
At Folklorama, grievances are best left outside the pavilions’ doors. It’s not a place for fighting; it’s a place where people of different ethnicities fist-bump in respectful revelry. To understand the allure, it helps to first understand what Folklorama is not.
Veterans of Folklorama know not to expect posh surroundings. Most pavilions are held in church basements, community centres and school gyms. Many are not air-conditioned. Typically, patrons sit on benches or stacking chairs.
The quality of the food is unpredictable and sometimes mediocre. Folklorama cooks are volunteers working in unfamiliar kitchens, restricted to a few dishes they can make in bulk in order to feed many people quickly. Culinary connoisseurs who consider fine dining paramount should likely forget Folklorama and visit one of Winnipeg’s many ethnic restaurants employing professional chefs who have perfected a wide menu of dishes.
Last Monday, at the Ethiopian pavilion near the intersection of Selkirk Avenue and Main Street — a neighborhood that has never been called pretentious — we sat on metal chairs that were crammed so closely, it was like sitting in the middle seat of the economy section of an airline. We tried not to elbow our neighbours as we balanced on our laps paper plates of food we attempted to carve with plastic cutlery.
Typical of Folklorama, though, the strength of this pavilion were the Ethiopians who hosted us. They doted on us with beaming smiles, ready laughter and genuine appreciation that we cared enough about their culture to join them in clapping to their music and cheering the brightly clad dancers who kicked it with youthful vigour.
"Winnipeg has been very good to Ethiopians," pavilion co-ordinator Ninta Lakew told me. "There’s a great appreciation that Winnipeg goes out of its way when anyone needs help."
After the show, we conversed separately with two Ethiopians who seemed prepared to talk to us all night if we wanted. It’s nice to leave a place and feel your hosts are sincerely sorry to see you go.
Such hospitality is the gift local Ethiopians are giving back to Winnipeg. And it’s typical of all the pavilions, which run nightly until Aug. 19.
Happy 50th, Folklorama. May you long continue showing the world that in Winnipeg, ethnic diversity is worth a whoop-it-up party.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.