As president of the Three Rivers Festival, Jack Hammer gets to meet lots of different folks.
It's part of his job, but also something he enjoys as he's become friends with representatives from a variety of cultures and groups.
As an example, Hammer tells the story of his friendship with Kulwinder Nagra of Sikh Community Fort Wayne. The Sikhs represent a monotheistic religion that started in northern India.
“I didn't really understand a lot about them, and I think people see them with their turbans on and kind of go, 'Who are these people?'” Hammer said. “'Are these friends, foes or whoever they are?' They are some of the most peaceful people in the world.”
One day, Hammer asked Nagra, “What do you call your head covering?”
“Dude,” Kulwinder replied, “it's a turban. Didn't you ever watch 'Jonny Quest?'” referring to one of the characters on the 1960s animated TV show.
The men shared a good laugh, Hammer said.
“Mr. Jack is a very humorous guy so I tried to explain it to him in his way,” Kulwinder said. “It's part of our culture. It's because we grow out our hair and we cover it with the turban.”
The local Sikh community is one of a handful of groups who participate in the Three Rivers Festival Parade each July.
“We love to introduce ourselves to the community and be a bigger part of the community,” Kulwinder said. “Sometimes we have been mistreated, and we try to educate the people who we are.”
And that, Hammer said, is precisely what the Three Rivers Festival is all about.
“The reason we have the International Village (one of the events during the festival that features music and food from different cultures) is because I come from, and we all come from, families of immigrants,” he said. “When my family came here from Germany in the 1870s, this was our land of milk and honey. So for all of these groups that we're talking about, Fort Wayne represents their land of milk and honey. Putting back together International Village almost 10 years ago was a great way to bring a neighbor face-to-face with another neighbor.”
The Three Rivers Festival is one of many festivals in Fort Wayne that showcases the different cultures and ethnic groups in the city. It's an opportunity for those groups to introduce the community to who they are and allows residents to find out more about them.
It's a theme Hammer and his staff are passionate about. He lists the Filipino American Society, Chinese Families and Friends Association, Fort Wayne Pride and the Indiana Buddhist Temple as regular parade participants and there are more who take part in the International Village the last two days of the festival.
“Let's make it so neighbor and neighbor can become a little closer,” Hammer said. “I have learned so much from all of these people. From the Buddhists, I have definitely learned patience and their very simplistic, loving way of life. From the Sikhs, I can't believe I have Sikhs as friends.
“They have enriched my life in a way that shows how the different people live their lives,” he added. “They are our neighbors and it allows us to kind of take a look at them and their lives a little bit and what they represent, and it helps to open up our minds a little bit about who our neighbors are and being a little more accepting. Hopefully it's breaking down those walls for our neighbors.”
Last year, the Latino Festival celebrated its 40th year. It'll be back in August at Headwaters Park.
“The goal is always to have a safe festival and to promote the Latin American and Hispanic culture of the people who reside here in northeast Indiana,” said Fernando Zapara, editor and publisher of El Mexicano newspaper, which sponsors the festival. “We are part of the landscape and have been for many generations. We want to showcase our culture with folkloric dancers, music and food.”
Zapara said more than 3,000 people participated in the festival last summer.
Other cultural festivals include:
• Cherry Blossom Festival, usually held in May, and celebrates Japanese culture. It is presented by the Japanese American Association of Indiana.
• Arab Festival, which provides an opportunity to educate the community on Arab culture, is held in early June.
• Germanfest, featuring all things German, including music, dancing and food, happens in early June.
• Greekfest celebrates the Greek community and features music, dancing and food. It takes place in late June.
• Pride Fest celebrates the LGBT community and is held in late July.
• Latino Festival highlights the Hispanic community with food, music and dancing and happens in August.