OTTUMWA — OTTUMWA — Communication between cultures leads to understanding and acceptance.
This bottom line has pushed the International Festival forward for the last 15 years, growing each year with more vendors, more entertainment and more participants, said the event’s creator, Ed Ball.
“We had a large influx of Latinos,” Ball said of the period of time before the event began in 1998. “There could be two Americans sitting there talking, and the Latino thinks they’re talking about him. I thought, we need to do something to get these people to come together.”
The festival began under a large tent in Sycamore Park with just a few booths. Today, it incorporates 20 ethnicities found throughout Ottumwa. Some may not realize, Ball said, but there are more than 17 different ethnicities working at Cargill Meat Solutions alone.
While the event has helped forge a dialogue between Ottumwa’s different cultures and ethnicities, Ball said nothing can be done to change stereotypes long set in stone.
“Those people are too far gone,” Ball said. “They sit around with something on their mind that happened 25 years ago.”
This is the first year Molly B has participated in the event after she was asked by Ball to become its event coordinator.
“I’m glad I did. It’s a lot of hard work, but I got to meet a lot of really interesting people,” she said. “I respect Ed so much. He’s so rich with the history of his own life. He’s helped open my eyes to different races and ethnicities. This makes you think about stereotypes, people being racist and ignorant to different cultures.”
She hopes the festival will “teach people not to be so narrow-minded.”
“This is a way to honor every culture,” she said.
The Ottumwa Human Rights Commission worked alongside the Ottumwa Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to organize this year’s event, said HRC member Lisa Aslesen.
“This is a way for people to share their culture with others,” said Lorena Perez.
This year’s festival incorporated more food than ever before from community kitchens and local restaurants, including newcomer Tasty Burritos, which had customers swarming around its booth throughout the entirety of the five-hour event.
“Food is a language we all speak, because every country has something special they’d like to share,” Aslesen said.
Sometimes, Perez said, people can be afraid to go to Mexican restaurants because they don’t know what to expect or what to order. Saturday’s event was a way to “take the pressure off” and allow them to approach each vendor, ask questions and try something new.
“I think people might not realize how many different cultures there are in Ottumwa,” Aslesen said. “It’s a neat mix. Who knew in little southeast Iowa we would have people from all over the world in our community?”
Not only does the event highlight and celebrate differences between the many cultures, Aslesen said, but it also becomes a way to show their commonalities.
“We all love Ottumwa, and these cultures make it a better place to live,” she said.