The Texas Folklife Festival

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Carmen Coder
Texas Meetings + Events
Spring 2011

If there's one event in Texas that's grabbed the bull by its horns, it's the Texas Folklife Festival. Now entering its 40th year, the annual gathering is the most culturally dive

The San Antonio festival, which showcases more than 40 different cultural groups, has been reproduced in various counties. However, none of the events have come even close to the original festival’s size, which (understandably) is no easy feat.

The festival wasn’t always backed by such momentum. "We had to find groups across the state and sell them our idea," says Jo Ann Andera, who recalls when the Texas Folklife Festival was just a concept in 1972. Now the festival’s director, Andera remembers when event founder Oscar Terrell Baker traveled to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. in the late 1960s and came back ready to replicate the experience.

Soon, he’d rounded up pickle makers, gunsmiths, potters, Filipino dancers, and provided a platform for show and tell.

As the event began to swell, organizers turned to volunteers for assistance. Although technology now helps the festival build and maintain its database, it wasn’t always so easy. "When I first started we had an office database, but it was limited to contact information. We had to manually do all tasks," explains Denise Villarreal, the festival’s volunteer coordinator.

The festival’s multi-layered scheduling, as well as its record of volunteer hours and mailings were all done by hand. More than 1,500 volunteers had to be called one-by-one. "We played lots of phone tag and practically had the phone attached to our ears-our office did not have Bluetooth," Villarreal adds.

In 2000, the festival purchased a software program that relieved much of the manual labor. A few years later, sign-in touch screens enabled volunteers to tend to their own administrative matters.

There are now three main organizers who begin to plan each festival about a year in advance. About 50 more organizers jump in three months before the actual event. Come show time, an army of a thousand recruits joins the fray. Recently, festival organizers worked with a nearby Air Force base to create an off-site volunteer opportunity as part of an orientation program.

Recruiting new volunteers begins at least six months before the event. While assignments are divvied up, gate supervisors and door monitors are among the busiest posts. Most aspects of the festival that rely on volunteers run smoothly, although there are always lastminute schedule changes.

Villarreal requests that volunteers who must miss a shift attempt to find their own replacements. Other issues that arise are mostly caused by global news or Mother Nature. "We had an instance where we had rain, rain, rain and we had mud, mud, mud-but the city stepped up and brought in mulch and spread it for us," says Andera.

The move helped prepare the ground for the 70,000-plus guests who visited the 15-acre festival’s many attractions, including multiple entertainment stages, carnival rides, vendor booths and more. "We rely on so many different constituencies," explains Andera. "It’s important to build and maintain those relationships. Any event person lives in fear of the same kinds of things."

Perhaps the concern that most resonates among event planners everywhere is the economic impact of a sluggish global economy-one that impacts eventgoers and event organizers alike.

The Texas Folklife Festival provides food and lodging to many participants and has had to become more judicious with its funds. "We need to know our limitations," says Andera. The festival, once a fourday affair, has been cut to three. To entice attendees, gate prices will decrease about 10 percent this year.

Still, that doesn’t mean anything goes. Andera recalls a last-minute vendor who begged to participate. After scrambling to create a spot, the person constantly complained about the space. "I just refunded their money and sent them on their merry way," says Andera, who prides herself on a growing list of happy, repeat customers.

Communication throughout the event is crucial. Staffers remain incredibly organized and everything is accounted for, literally down to the cup size. Wine must be served in a 7-ounce container. Wine coolers, a 16-ounce cup. Serving personnel are required to wear ethnic garb.

Vendors must demonstrate the preparation of at least one menu item and provide free printed recipes to visitors. The list of requirements goes on and on.

Lilia Swayne, president of the Asociación Amigos de Colombia, a non-profit organization that promotes Colombian heritage, says at times preparation for the festival was overwhelming. Swayne participated for the first time last year. "We didn’t know there would be so much paperwork," she says.

Filling out applications and collecting statements took Swayne several days. She succeeded and was invited to sell empanadas, arepas and other foods. She mistakenly thought she could perform, too, and was unaware it required a separate application. Despite the misunderstanding, she’s hoping to be invited back.

Already set to return is a freewheeling bluegrass jam session. The local amateur players were a huge hit last year. "Other bands would finish playing, then come jump up on stage with us," says Gene Warner, an acoustic guitar player. "Texas Folklife is like that."

This event, put on by Texans for Texans, revels in camaraderie. While some participants are aging out, new generations are filling in, dressing up and showing visitors how it’s done-you know, in their countries.


TEXAS FOLKLIFE FESTIVAL // Sponsored by the Institute of Texan Cultures / June 10-12, 2011 / 210.458.2224

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