For decades, just 1 percent of Nashville’s population was comprised of foreign-born immigrants. Yet there came the idea for the “Celebrate Nashville” festival, which brings together immigrants and natives to build understanding. The city has become many times more diverse in the 20 years since, and the festival is also evolving.
At the core is the idea that no matter where you’re from, it’s easy to get along over food, music, and dance. Those are the staples of Celebrate Nashville, with live performances, traditional cuisine, educational booths and international art.
From these bonding points, organizer Cindy Politte says complete strangers can meet in a meaningful way.
“If you’re on an elevator, you’re not necessarily going to ask somebody a personal question about their heritage, or their ethnicity. And you don’t feel comfortable answering that question either,” she said. “In a festival setting, it’s just a safe, fun environment. You see people interacting and talking and sharing their recipes and their kids are playing together.”
This vision of hosting a meeting of all ethnicities anticipated the region’s influx of immigrants. It began as the Celebration of Cultures in 1996 at the Scarritt Bennett Center, which has roots in international missionary work.
That was a time when the foreign-born population was still small.
Now, the foreign-born make up 15 percent of Davidson County, with many Latinos, and also refugees, like Kurds and Somalis.
Mirroring that growth, the festival draws some 60,000 attendees. Organizers say that places the event among the Nashville’s most popular — and it has become a model for other cities.
Video by Zack Wilson courtesy of Celebrate Nashville.
Meanwhile, trends say that Nashville will become more eclectic until it is a place without a single ethnic majority group by 2040.
Over time, Politte says second and third-generation families can lose connections to their home countries.
“I think it’s more important than ever to have a central location for everyone to gather,” she said. “People are losing their identities a little bit, so we still want to showcase where they came from, and honor that, while recognizing that now they are Nashvillians.”
The big event is 10 to 6 on Saturday at Centennial Park. But this year, for the first time, there have been related activities during the week.
There was a smaller ethnic dinner and a tour of different places of worship. And there was a night of international music at Ryman Auditorium, which put Nashville’s diverse cultures onto the city’s most well-known stage.