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Ethnic Groups In Waterbury Come Together In Library Park To Celebrate Diversity, May 18th
By John Murray
Lugging a dream around in your head for 15 years is tiring. The only path to freedom is to hurl yourself towards the fire and either transform the dream into reality, or fail trying. A dream without effort will never materialize, so it was with a sense of relief that I unchained one of my dreams last Autumn, and set out to create a multi-cultural festival in Waterbury celebrating the extraordinary diversity of the people living and working in the city.
For twenty years I have covered ethnic festivals around Waterbury and they are largely attended by the ethnic group hosting the event. Back in the 1990s I suggested to Mayor Phil Giordano that the city try and sponsor an event celebrating the rich global diversity represented in Waterbury, and invite all the ethnic groups to celebrate their culture in one place, and at one time. He agreed to help, and asked if I would lead the effort to create the festival. Before the idea had a chance to incubate, the city’s finances collapsed, the State of Connecticut took over financial control of Waterbury, and Phil Giordano was arrested and eventually sentenced to 37 years in federal prison.
It was a bad time to throw a party, and I filed the idea away. Four years ago the idea re-surfaced when I went to the Albanian festival on Raymond Street in the South End of Waterbury. I went with my daughter, Chelsea, and we were both stunned at the food, dancing and spirit of the Albanians. We also believed that at the time we went we were the only non-Albanians in attendance. The festival was rich with culture from 4,634 miles away, yet few people from Bunker Hill, the East End or Town Plot, had managed to drive the two or three miles to immerse themselves in Albania.
Something was missing in Waterbury, and the invisible curtain that divided ethnic groups in the city for 200 years was still alive and well. I thought back to a quote I had read at the Mattatuck Museum many years ago. It was a line from a Kennedy High School history teacher who said, (and I'm paraphrasing), “Waterbury, Connecticut, that’s no melting pot, it’s a salad bowl. Each group, like a tomato, cucumber or onion, is distinctly separate, and different.”
And for nearly 200 years the city was a salad bowl. There were Irish, Italian, French-Canadian, Lithuanian, Jewish and African-American neighborhoods. Ethnic groups kept to themselves, and it was considered risky to enter onto another group’s turf.
While some of the overt separation has melted in the past 50 years, the less visible, but equally destructive dividing lines are still present. How do you chop away at that? My idealistic notion is to invite everyone to a massive party celebrating global culture, and let human nature do the rest.
It would be called The Gathering, a name I swiped from my Scottish heritage. For more than 1,000 years the Scots lived in clans (a large group that all used the same last name), and clans were scattered around the Highlands of Scotland. They largely hated one another. The clans would fight for most of the year, but each Autumn the groups would lay down their swords to come together in a “gathering of the clans” to enjoy music, dance, sporting contests, wine and beer. After the gathering they would return to their homes and resume battle.
I pitched the idea of a “gathering” to Mayor Neil O’Leary in an e-mail in late November, and his simple reply was, “I’m all in.”
And with that three-word response the dream tumbled out of my head. I began tapping into the network I have been able to build up as a journalist in Waterbury these past 20 years. I went to talk to Ede Reynolds who has staged SpiritFest, I went to see Carl Rosa from Main Street Waterbury who runs successful BrewFests every September, I sought advice from Lynn Ward at the Chamber of Commerce who planned the Fireball Run in downtown Waterbury last September. All three of these individuals had keen insights to share from the success and failures they had experienced developing their own events, and each generously shared their knowledge.
Frank Tavara at the Palace Theater offered great advice about planning and booking entertainment, and the Mayor’s staff - Geraldo Reyes, Saranda Belica, Mickey Albini, Garrett Casey, and Joe Geary have all pitched in to move the festival forward.
We have largely kept the planning away from the Mayor as he has bigger issues to wrestle with, but Neil O’Leary has intervened several times with sharp decisions at moments of peril to steer the ship away from the rocks.
Mike Ptak, Emmett McSweeney and Bill DeMaida have been instrumental in planning and organizing the ethnic themed parade that kicks off The Gathering on May 18th. Carl Rosa and Saranda Belica have taken the lead in laying out the park and establishing where tents, stages and food vendors will set up shop. Minerva Maldanado, Alexis Rotella and Ken Killer have headed up a volunteer recruitment effort that now stands at 70.
Leo Lavallee and Dale O’Leary - both educators - developed a simple and creative passport game that will allow children from kindergarten through 6th grade to go around to the thirty ethnic groups to get a sticker in their passport.
In the past four months there are a few dozen people that have helped push the ball forward; my daughter Chelsea was key in helping conceptualize the festival, Doug Poger helped with musical acts, Donna Bonaserra is helping choreograph the dance and music, Gerry Reyes was a heated neuron recruiting 20 ethnic groups by himself, and Saranda Belica tasked after details and paperwork like a hawk swooping after a squirrel.
It hasn’t all been three rounds of Kumbaya, though. We’ve banged heads, we’ve disagreed, there might even have been a few eye-gouges along the way. One tricky area in ethnic recruitment occurred in the African-American community. While it was clear that the Irish came from Ireland, and the Italians came from Italy, what country did the African-Americans come from?
We know most of their ancestors were dragged here against their will in chains from Africa, but Africa is not a country. In some of our marketing we listed the countries we had recruited ethnic groups from; Cuba, Portugal, Nepal, Brazil, India...and left off the word African-American because it wasn’t a country.
Jimmy Saunders, who is African-American, and a wonderful man, called us out on our noticeably absent marketing references to the black community. Black, by the way, isn’t a country either. I spent 45 minutes on the phone with Jimmy hashing out the issue and agreed to change the marketing from listing countries to listing ethnic groups; Italians, Albanians, African-Americans, etc...
As we were winding down the conversation Jimmy said, “What you’re doing here has never been done before in this city. This is history.”
Jimmy said he has lived his whole life in Waterbury and the groups have never gotten together like this. When he was growing up ethnic groups were separated. “If you started on the Green and went north, you knew who lived there," he said. "If you headed to the south, you knew who lived there. For most of my life if you told me the name of a street in Waterbury I could tell you what ethnic group lived there.”
But Jimmy took the division one step further. “Even after you died we stayed separated,” he said, “the Irish had their own funeral home, so did the Italians, Jews and blacks. We were separated in life, and we were separated in death. We never came together.”
On May 18th we have an opportunity to change the dynamic. The catch phrase for the festival is, “We all came from somewhere, now it’s time we come together.”
Whoever you are, and wherever you come from, you’re invited to The Gathering.
Hope to see you there.