The first inclusive multi-cultural festival in Waterbury history – The Gathering – was held in 2013, and was so successful, that it will now become an annual event, the next one being tomorrow, May 17th, from 11 am to 8 pm in downtown Waterbury. Pictured above are Brazilian samba dancers marching in the 2013 parade.

                                  Column and Photographs By John Murray

    There was one moment during The Gathering last year that will stick in my memory until my last breath. The moment was wrapped in anticipation, anxiety and exhaustion. A small group of volunteers and city employees had been planning the festival for months; recruiting ethnic groups, plotting parade routes, and dealing with insurance, electricity, and details we didn’t even know existed. When May 18th arrived we were unsure of what we had created. There were more than 40 cultural groups signed up to share their music, food and dance, but were they going to show up?

   We had furiously recruited cultural groups and organizations to participate in a parade through downtown Waterbury, and after a slow start, we had secured commitments from 100 organizations (including dozens of cultural groups, some with floats and traditional clothes from their ancestral homes). But were they going to show up?

   After wrestling some final details to the ground in the morning, it was almost 11 am, the time the parade was supposed to start at the corner of East Main Street and North Elm Street, and I suggested to my daughter, brother and several friends who were helping out that we walk towards the parade and check it out. As soon as we left the park, downtown was a ghost town. I had expected people to be lining the streets waiting for the parade, but as we walked towards the Waterbury Police Station, I started to get a pit in my stomach.

   ‘Where were all the people?” I wondered. Had we swung and missed?

   We cruised up East Main Street, past the Palace Theater and UConn, and there were no more than a 100 people milling about waiting for the parade. I started to feel like a teenager who had invited all his friends to a party, and then nobody showed up. I didn’t say anything to anyone else, and I kept my darkening insecurity to myself.

   “Oh well,” I thought. “We had busted our butts to make The Gathering a success, and  maybe Waterbury wasn’t ready for it.”

   When I reached the corner of North Elm Street I saw an ocean of vibrant colors and thousands of Waterburians lined up to celebrate their heritage and culture with their neighbors. Within seconds the Mattatuck Fife & Drum Band launched into gear and the parade was underway. I stood with my heart thumping in my chest as groups from Cape Verde, Guyana, Nepal, Colombia, Italy, Jamaica, Albania, China, Lebanon, Portugal, Ireland and Puerto Rico marched by.

   When the Police Pipe and Drum Band (pictured above) kicked their bagpipes into overdrive I felt tears streaming down my face. I could blame my emotion on being Scottish and hearing music from the Scottish Highlands that was hard-wired into my DNA, but there was more to it than that. There had been so much stress in trying to pack mule the festival across the finish line, that I had been unaware that I had been reduced to a raw nerve ending standing in the middle of East Main Street photographing one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen – thousands of Waterburians getting their mojo on.

   The festival had worked. There were few spectators along the route because everyone was in the parade – all 2500 of them.

Festive costumes from Puerto Rico.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, middle, immediately grasped the potential of The Gathering, and his support was critical to the festival.

   Within two hours there were an estimated 5000 people in Library Park, and between 8000 and 10,000 people came out to enjoy The Gathering last May, and now we’re going to do it again on May 17th.

A youth group from the Lebanese community wowed the audience inside Library Park.

Spontaneous outbursts of cultural pride broke out all across the park last year and in this image members of the Lithuanian community and the Colombian community joined in dance.

Nana Assibey-Yeboah from Ghana was a huge hit at the Gathering last year, and has recruited five addition African countries to display their culture inside Library park this year. Nana is pictured here placing a sticker on a passport game that encourages children of all ages to visit each cultural tent at the festival.

The local Albanian community broke out in a festive “valle” dance in the afternoon, and within minutes they were joined by fellow Waterburians who had made similar journeys from countries all across the globe.

Jerome Hunter performed on African drums.

Dancers from the Portugese Sports Club on Baldwin Street in Waterbury.

The masks and traditional cultural clothes of the Dominican Republic.

   And this time the planning and execution is light years ahead of last year because we had already identified cultural groups, leaders, food vendors, musicians and dancers. This year we had to address our weaknesses, plug a few holes, and attempt to make The Gathering bigger and better than last year. There is a greater awareness of the festival in Waterbury this year, and several committee members gained invaluable experience in 2013 that has enabled us to better organize the park and the schedule of events.

   The details that follow this column are largely due to the incredible recruitment effort of Geraldo Reyes, an aide to Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, and to the determined effort of Saranda Belica, who also works in Mayor O’Leary’s office. Belica organized the chaos that Geraldo and I created in recruiting cultural groups and entertainers. Reyes has boundless energy to engage the community in conversation, and Belica has her grip on the steering wheel and keeps the process moving forward. They make a great team.

Mike Ptak, Saranda Belica and Geraldo Reyes have been driving forces behind the 2013 and 2014 festivals. 

   Additionally, there has been enormous help provided by Mike Ptak, Bill DeMaida, Terry Longo, Emmett McSweeney, Spencer Parrish, Carl Rosa and Main Street Waterbury. And without Neil O’Leary’s support, The Gathering would have fizzled like a firecracker in a monsoon. O’Leary was quick to grasp the possibility of a massive cultural celebration of diversity, but it took him some time to fully process what had happened. He appeared slightly stunned in Library Park last May, and he told me that it wasn’t until the following morning that he realized the magnitude of The Gathering.

   “I was sitting around having breakfast with my 11-year-old daughter, Maggie O’Leary, and her friends, and they were so excited about all the countries they had traveled to at the festival, and the people they met from all over the world,” O’Leary said. “The girls were thrilled. It was a fabulous educational opportunity for them, and I have worked hard this year to get the public schools to embrace the festival, and to participate in it.”

   O’Leary said the resounding success of The Gathering, “opened all our eyes to what people can accomplish when they work together. I have been here my whole life, and The Gathering was the single best event I have attended in this city.”

Mayor O’Leary sharing a high five on his way inside Library Park.

Irene Horgan taught a group of Waterbury youngsters traditional Irish dance.

The joy of two individuals – from different corners of the globe – dancing inside Library Park.

   Waterbury has a rich history of small ethnic festivals, but seldom do people outside the host culture attend the festivals. The idea of The Gathering is to bring all the ethnic festivals together in one place and time and celebrate the extraordinary diversity in Waterbury.

   Last year Jimmy Saunders, an African-American, said he has lived his whole life in Waterbury and the groups had never gotten together like this. When he was growing up ethnic groups were all separated.

   “If you started on the Green and went north, you knew who lived there,” Saunders 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 Saunders took the division one step further. “Even after you died you 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, until The Gathering.”

   If you missed the festival last year, no worries, get yourself into downtown Waterbury on May 17th to line up along East Main Street, Bank Street and Grand Street, and hoot and holler as thousands of Waterburians celebrate their cultural heritage.

   We all came from somewhere, and now it’s time to come together. Again.


The Schedule

The parade starts at 11 am sharp.

11:45-12:30 Steel Rodeo
1:00 Opening Ceremony and Remarks
1:05-1:10 Andrea Saunders & Zion Baptist Mass Choir sing “America the Beautiful”
1:10-1:15 Zion Baptist Mass Choir
1:15-2:00 Grupi Rinia, Albanian band; youth group will lead the festival in one massive multi-cultural dance. Everyone is encouraged to participate.
2:30-3:15 Slippery Sneakers, zydeco music from the Louisiana Bayou
4:00-4:45 Timmy Maia
5:30-6:15 Crosseyed Cat
6:45-7:15 La Moderna, salsa band

12:30-1:00 Horgan Irish Academy of Dance
2:00-2:15 Portuguese dance group
2:15-2:30 Phillipino dance by Naugatuck Valley Community College students
3:15-3:30 “Rio de Plata” Argentina & Uruguay Dance
3:30-3:45 Ayazamama, Ecuadorean dancers
3:45-4:00 Lebanese dance
4:45-5:00 Dominican dance
5:00-5:15 Jerome Hunter, drummer, with Life Dance Co. (funded by NWRIB)
5:15-5:30 Berkeley Knights Drill Team & Drum Corp.
6:15-6:30 Kelvia, belly dancing

11:45-12:45 Lockheed Electra, jazz band
1:30-2:00 Samba Brazil, band
2:00-3:00 Fourpeace, rock/blues/jazz band
3:00-3:45 Mariacchi band
3:45-4:00 Sherry Langrock, Italian opera singer
4:00-4:15 Waly Thiam, Senegalese drummer
4:15-4:30 Marilyn Calderon, vocalist
4:30-5:30 Juan Carlos Lapaix, merengue band
5:30-5:45 Vinilos, Andean music performed by Naugatuck Valley Community School students
5:45-6:45 Gnostic Roots, reggae band

12:00-12:30 Los Vigigantes, Puerto Rican dance
12:30-12:45 Dominicanos-USA, dance
1:30-2:00 Lui Collins, kids folk songs
2:00-2:30 Pete & Chris Amusement, magicians
2:35-2:45 Bravo Waterbury!
2:45-2:55 PAL, YMCA, Girls Inc. dancers
2:55-3:00 Shakesperience Productions, song
3:00-3:05 Ropson, Brazilian “Capoeira”
3:10-3:45 Sirius Coyote, band
3:45-4:00 Colombian kids dance
4:00-4:45 Iddi Saaka, Ghanaian drummer
4:45-5:15 Noreaster All Star Dance & Cheer
5:20-5:30 Waly Thiam, Senegalese drummer
5:30-5:45 Kuri Sisa, Ecuadorean dance group
5:45-6:15 Dan Gardella

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