Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: Festive

Fiesta dancers

Photo: Fiesta (reprinted with permission)

Dancers entertain the audience at Fiesta in Linn Park. Cultural festivals showcase the diversity and the stories of Birmingham’s communities.

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By Teresa Zúñiga Odom

“Festivals ask the audience to be a player, a protagonist, a partner, rather than a passive spectator.”

— David Binder, Broadway producer in his 2012 TED Talk

So many exciting festivals in Birmingham each year draw diverse attendees: Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Chinese New Year Festival, Sidewalk Film Festival, the Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, Oktoberfest. We brought our own event into the mix in 2002.

The Future of BirminghamAt the time, I was a board member of the Hispanic Business Council, part of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (now the Birmingham Business Alliance). A few of us were looking for a way to raise scholarship money for Hispanic students in Alabama. A business idea quickly turned into a nonprofit event when we realized how many misconceptions people had about the Hispanic community, from both a business and a societal perspective. That discussion gave birth to Fiesta, the state’s premier Hispanic cultural festival.

The Hispanic population in the Birmingham region was exploding, but the myth was that everyone who speaks Spanish was from Mexico, ate tacos and listened to mariachi music. Creating a festival got our creative juices flowing on ways to educate the non-Hispanic community about the many cultures of Alabama’s Latino community in a relatable way.

Every diverse group experiences misperceptions and struggles with finding ways to explain them to others. For the founding board members, the idea of educating others about these misperceptions through Fiesta compelled us. We felt like a mini-Hispanic United Nations.

Today’s festivals celebrate diversity and multiculturalism. Everyone involved in Fiesta takes pride in pulling it together each year and gathering feedback from all groups to improve it constantly. Putting on the event has had some unexpected benefits in its 13-year history.

One section of Fiesta is the Cultural Village, where booths each represent a country with personal artifacts, food and music. To me, this is the most colorful part, the corazón (heart) of the event. The number of people who experience the stories of these Latino community members never ceases to amaze me.

I especially love hearing conversations with a true give-and-take. One year, I overheard a young woman speaking to the gentleman who pulled the Peruvian booth together. She recounted her visit to the Incan citadel Machu Picchu, only to discover that he had never been. She couldn’t believe it, and he asked her if she had ever visited the Statue of Liberty.

Her face changed, growing a little embarrassed as she said no. A few seconds later, they were both laughing and talking about assuming things and sharing more stories about Peru, travel and culture. This scene is typical. Educating through stories is a valuable part of festivals.

Fiesta and other festivals in our city prove to us how great we can be as a community. Find your festival, and let it give you hope. Share your story, and listen to others. Dance, eat and laugh together. Do your part in positively shaping the diversity of Birmingham.

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Teresa Zúñiga OdomTeresa Zúñiga Odom is an energy expert training coordinator at Alabama Power, a blogger at Southern Señora and a founding board member of Fiesta.

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The Future of BirminghamThe full version of this essay and many more are available in the free ebook, “The Future of Birmingham.”

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Read more essays in our special 10th anniversary series, The Future of Birmingham.

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