Chow Town

Ethnic Fest: Come for the food, stay for the sense of community

Axe Capoeira & Grupo Tropicalia show off their capoeira skills back in 2011.
Axe Capoeira & Grupo Tropicalia show off their capoeira skills back in 2011. Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star

One of my most treasured keepsakes is an acrylic painting depicting a scene from the Mayor’s Ethnic Enrichment Festival. When she was still in middle school, my daughter Daniela painted it from a snapshot taken of the annual Parade of Flags.

In the foreground, Daniela is a toddler, wearing a flouncy carnival dress made of red satin and itchy tulle. She is goofing around with her older brother Andre, who is decked out in a miniature gaucho costume to illustrate what the cowboys of southern Brazil wear on the range. In the background of the painting there’s a gathering of people, each wearing a different country’s native costumes. When I look at the painting, I cannot help but get a lump in my throat when I think about how this global village has shaped my family’s sense of identity.

The three-day festival has been held in Swope Park on the third full weekend of August since 1976. The goal remains to celebrate the native food, music and crafts of ethnic groups living in the metro. This year more than 60 countries are participating.

The behind-the-scenes logistics of putting on a festival of this magnitude escape most festival-goers. For starters the operation involves mobile kitchens, refrigerator trucks, rented vans and slow cookers of every make and model.

Our family and friends put in weeks of preparation so we can sell feijoada (a black bean and pork stew), pao de queijo (cheese bread), churrasquinho (top sirloin skewers) and guarana (a soda made with a berry from the Amazon). Members of the local Brazilian-style martial arts group Axe Capoeira and dance troupe Grupo Tropicalia arrive on Sunday afternoon toting drums and berimbau to perform to a newly rapt audience. (This year’s performance is at 3 p.m.)

Throughout the long weekend, we sweat profusely under the summer sun. And every year we swear we’ll never do this much work (it’s like becoming a small catering company without staff or training!) simply to break even on expenses. But every year we’re back because we are proud, and because it’s oddly fun, and in a world marked with segregation and strife, we still believe it is an event that can bring Kansas Citians together.

My children are nearly grown — Andre is 21 and Daniela is a month shy of 17 — and the next generation of toddlers are getting dressed up to model ethnic fashions, dance or sing folk songs to the oohs and ahhs of the crowd.

Time marches on and yet the world drum beat at Swope Park remains steady, attracting some 35,000 visitors each year, which is why I’m always surprised, and a bit saddened, when someone tells me they have never been to the festival. For me, there are few other places in Kansas City that offer this much diversity or sense of community.

Of course, diversity can also be delicious. This time of year I always get a craving for the Israeli coconut macaroons, the Spanish gazpacho and Jamaican jerk chicken. This year I’m also eager to taste fish cakes, coconut cake, squash drink and cocoa tea at St. Lucia, one of the newest booths on the block.

Ethnic Enrichment Festival

When: Friday, Aug. 21-Sunday, Aug. 23

Where: Swope Park, Meyer Blvd. and Swope Parkway

Hours: Friday: 6-10 p.m.

Saturday: Noon-10 p.m.

Sunday: Noon-6 p.m.

Admission: Adults: $3; 12 & Under: Free

Parking: Free

For a list of menus, a map of booths, directions to the park and a schedule of entertainment, go to