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International Festival opens doors to a wider World

ESSEX JUNCTION -- The world came together briefly, but exuberantly this weekend at the 15th annual Vermont International Festival at the Champlain Valley Exposition Center in Essex Junction. For a mere $6, Vermonters could open the doors of the Exposition Center to find a rich melting pot of food, crafts, music and dance from over 50 countries covering 6 continents. Vendors traveled from across the North East and from around the world to display their hand-made and imported goods to the nearly 5,000 visitors that attended the festival over the weekend. Many were selling the crafts of family members living abroad. Others represented American solidarity groups who had established links with cooperatives in Latin America and elsewhere. Still others were more traditional importers of foreign goods. Several of the vendors said that their profits will fund community development projects both at home and abroad. The Tibetan representatives, for example, are putting their proceeds into the development of a Tibetan Association Center in Burlington and toward helping other family members living abroad make the journey to the United States, said Ben Bergstein a principal organizer of the event. A Vermont woman representing a Zapatista womens cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico said that 100% of the money from the sales of their products would be directly funneled into the health care and education projects that the womens community sponsors without aid from the Mexican government. Although many vendors traveled from afar to sell their handiwork at the festival, many ethnic Vermonters also set up shop, representing the rich cultural fabric that defines the greater Burlington area. Most of the whole world lives here, said Bergstein, himself a vendor of Russian crafts. The goal of the whole event is to get the different groups of the Vermont community together to see that all of these other communities exist, said Bergstein. It is so important to see that their culture of origin is of value and that living in America doesnt have to mean homogenization. Although the organizers of the event have attempted to reach out to all of Vermonts ethnic minorities in the past to ensure that all of the states diverse populations would be represented in the show, the Festival didnt make any efforts this year to ensure such representation. If we want all those populations to be here, we have to do all the work, and we frankly dont have time, Bergstein said. Its hard to tell people to stop what theyre doing so that they can sit down and sell stuff. The first event of this kind in Vermont occurred in 1986, when a group of people who were independently importing foreign goods, including Bergstein, organized the Interfolk-86 Festival to expand the market for their products and raise awareness of cultural diversity in Vermont. The organizers modeled the festival on European international festivals, with 8 full days of parades, concerts, dance, music, food and crafts. However, the magnitude of this event proved too great a burden for its organizers to continue the festival as an annual affair. America at that time wasnt ready for that kind of thing, said Bergstein. The crew re-grouped in 1993 to stage the Vermont International Craft Fair and Cultural Expo, which has continued annually, now with the revised name, the Vermont International Festival. Bergstein observed that the most important moment of the entire festival happened in the morning hours of Friday, before the event even opened to the public, when 1,000 children from surrounding schools came to experience the sights and sounds of faraway lands. Everyone was pretty fascinated, he said. Its all so interesting to them.

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