At the Ethnic Enrichment Festival, Maselina Conlon wants to give Kansas City a taste of Haiti
The Ethnic Enrichment Festival has been bringing people together to celebrate their different cultures for 44 years now. Maselina Conlon loves the festival for the opportunity to teach people about Haitian culture.
The wooden stand where Maselina Conlon and her family are preparing for Kansas City’s Ethnic Enrichment Festival is bustling on Friday afternoon. People are hanging clothing from Conlon’s business, My Island Roots, which sells apparel that Conlon makes and some that she buys in Haiti. Others are preparing creole dishes to sell to the thousands of visitors who will stop by over the next three days.
Conlon has been participating in the festival since 1997, when she and her family moved to Kansas City from Haiti. After meeting a woman at church who ran the country’s stand, Conlon was inspired to volunteer. She’s been coming back ever since.
“I love it so much because you get involved with a lot of other people and then you get to know about other countries to see how much they love their country as much as you love yours,” Conlon says.
Each year, Swope Park becomes home to dozens of different cultures — each brimming with love for their country and communities. This year, more than 40 different groups are participating in the 44th annual Ethnic Enrichment Festival — one of the largest multicultural gatherings in the Midwest — to showcase their food and traditions.
The festival gives Conlon a crucial opportunity to share Haitian culture and dispel misconceptions people may have about the country — that it’s the poorest country in the world and dangerous. She wants people to get to know her culture “in spite of what they see on the news.”
“We might not have a lot of money, but I feel like we have the richest country in the world,” Conlon says. “These people have nothing but they are always happy and they have love. And I think that shows coming here as you see — the people is setting up and we all talking, we're exciting and we all happy.”
Conlon says the opportunity to try new food helps to break down any stereotypes people may have about a country. For her, every dish served is an opportunity to talk to someone new and introduce them to Haiti. She recommends the Cabrit en Sauce, a goat stew, along with some rice and beans. She says people are constantly surprised by how much they love Creole food after trying it for the first time.
“The festival brings that out,” Conlon says. “It actually shines a light into every one of these countries here.”
For the volunteers themselves, the festival is an opportunity to reconnect and hang out for an exciting, if exhausting, weekend. Conlon stays connected to other people from her country through the First Haitian Baptist Church, which offers a time for people in the tight-knit community to see each other often.
“The Haitian community here was very small, but it’s growing more and more almost weekly,” Conlon says.
When Haitian immigrants and refugees settle in Kansas City, Conlon’s church helps them find jobs, English language classes and housing. While the Haitian community in Kansas City was small when Conlon first moved here as an 18-year-old, she’s excited to see it grow and thrive.
Throughout the festival weekend, Conlon is hoping to connect with more people from the Haitian community while experiencing all the other cultures the festival has to offer.
“I think the benefit of the festival is that we are in the Midwest and people get to experience other countries and at least taste their food,” Conlon says. “I appreciate how organized this is and it makes it easy for us to just be ourselves. I feel like I'm at home.”
Conlon goes to great lengths to participate each year. Due to her husband’s job, the family moves around a lot. But that doesn’t stop Conlon from staying involved with her Kansas City-based church — or coming to the festival. Last year, she drove to Kansas City from Orlando, Florida, just to run Haiti’s stand. This year, she was grateful to only drive from Nebraska.
“Anything to even tell people about Haiti — I'll drive to the moon,” Conlon said. “That's how much I love my country.”