Lina Bernal’s accessory company, LilaBe, is quintessential Colombian.
Orange juice, she said, is big in Colombia, so she gets leftover peels and shapes them into flowers to use as decals for necklaces. She also makes necklaces by crocheting coffee beans and melon seeds.
“I use natural materials that are Colombian,” she said.
Her native land was just one of 60 countries represented at this year’s International Festival, held at the Raleigh Convention Center over the weekend. Attendance at the festival, which is in its 29th year, was expected to total around 30,000 by time it was to wrap up at 7 p.m. on Sunday.
International Focus Inc., a cross-cultural nonprofit in Raleigh, organizes the event every year. Melissa Driver Beard, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the event is an opportunity for North Carolinians to learn about themselves and about other cultures.
“As human beings, we have way more in common than we think. There are more ties that bind us than separate us,” she said. “I hope people will come (to the festival) and find the good in the room.”
Past International Festivals have featured a typical convention format with vendors arranged row-by-row. But this year, tents were organized in the style of an old world market, giving it the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.
“It’s as if you were walking in the Grand Market in Istanbul. You can see so many different cool things,” she said. “That’s what I was going for.”
Inside the tents are crafts, food, traditions and information about the 60 countries represented at the festival.
There are also two different stages for performances. The weekend featured Washington, D.C.-based Afro-pop band Elikeh as Friday’s headliner, and La Sonora Dinamita, the Colombian group behind “cumbia” music, on Saturday night. Beard said this is the first year organizers have made more of an effort to include groups from outside the Triangle as headliners.
Among the food booths that lined the walls of the convention center, Al Cellini from the Triangle Italian American Heritage Association served cannoli, pizza and mozzarella sticks to hungry patrons. Cellini, who has been a festival regular for 26 years, said he loves the opportunity to practice his Italian and teach others about his culture.
“It is really cool, teaching people – the kids, especially,” he said. “They get to learn a new phrase here and there.”
Across the room in a booth plastered with photos of Iran’s national treasures, Moujan Khorran from the Iranian Cultural Center of North Carolina gave presentation after presentation about Mount Damauand, the Caspian Sea and about Dasht-e-Lut, the hottest place on Earth, with unwavering enthusiasm.
Khorran, who has been coming to the festival pretty much since it began, said she is glad to have the opportunity to talk about her culture – she just hopes people will listen.
“I hope Americans are interested. Mostly, it’s international people who are interested,” she said. “Americans should be more interested in the food and culture of other countries.”
Bernal, the jewelry maker, was a first-time vendor at this year’s festival. She said she wanted to be a part of it because she loves any opportunity to show others what is distinct about her culture.
“I love to show our culture – how Colombians love to wear bright colors and be happy, and show how we can wear this jewelry in different parts of life,” she said.
This year, International Focus partnered with about 15 nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brother Big Sister to bring nearly 300 Wake and Durham county children from elementary to high school age to the festival. Beard said she hopes bringing these children to the festival will expose them to things they might have never known existed.
“So many of them may not have seen the world outside of Wake County. What a great opportunity (this is) for them to learn about dances, traditions, heritage, the food, that makes everything about the world so unique,” she said.
Beard said her hope is that the festival will highlight diversity in the Triangle.
“In a world where there’s a lot of strife these days, it’s good to see peace on the convention floor with 70 different ethnic groups,” she said.