Ethnic roots nourished at Holiday Folk Fair


November 16, 2017


Gokhan Kula, right, dances with the Turam Turkish group at the 2012 Holiday Folk Fair International.

Credit: Submitted photo

Since the time of World War II, the Holiday Folk Fair International has ushered in the holiday season for any number of residents of the region.

Traditionally staged on the weekend before Thanksgiving, this year’s 74th annual Folk Fair runs Friday through Sunday at the State Fair Park Exposition Center, 8200 W. Greenfield Ave., West Allis.

With its theme of “Celebrate the Culture of Welcome,” the 2017 festival will again feature ethnic dancers and musicians, foods emblematic of more than a score of cultures, demonstrations by professional chefs, a Coffee House and an International Bazaar. Some 60 “ethnic communities” will be represented at Folk Fair, according to Al Durtka, president of the three-day event’s sponsoring organization - the International Institute of Wisconsin.

Fairgoers will be able to polka in the Tanzhaus area so as to work up an appetite for Bavarian bratwurst, Greek lemon rice soup, Chinese chicken on a stick, assorted Italian and German cookies and delicacies from about 15 other places, including France, Egypt and - new this year - Nepal. Between 2 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Sunday, cultural exhibits will co-exist with sale booths.

A “very formal” and “very impressive ceremony,” in Durtka’s words, will effectually kick off the 74th edition. A naturalization ritual, during which a judge will administer the oath of citizenship to a group that could exceed 200 individuals, is slated for 2:30 p.m. Friday. Folk Fair’s original purpose, still operative after seven decades, has been helping immigrants become part of the community “and exposing the rest of the community to who they are (with regard to) their cultural background, beliefs and values,” Durtka noted.

“No question about that,” the IIW’s president for the past 33 years said to the suggestion that the Folk Fair seems to be a festival for all age groups. Fairgoers will experience “some new food, entertainment and products,” he said. Nearly 48,000 attended last year’s Folk Fair, said Durtka, and a similar turnout is anticipated in 2017.


Trick roper Javier Escamilla shares the stage with his dancer wife, Angelica. The Mexico natives’ Waukesha/Milwaukee Ballet Folklorico Nacional group will perform at this weekend’s Holiday Folk Fair International.
Credit: Submitted photo

Waukesha’s Angelica Escamilla, a naturalized citizen and co-founder with husband Javier of the Ballet Folklorico Nacional Aztec and Mexican dance group for youngsters and adults, spoke to the significance of Folk Fair in her life. “An amazing vehicle to open more doors for us,” mused the native of Mexico. “The festival is a great opportunity for people of all ethnic groups to get together and share aspects of their culture.”

Escamilla added that the event “definitely” promotes the welcoming, fostering-of-inclusiveness implied in this year’s aforementioned slogan. “Folk Fair is a great way to bring people of all backgrounds and cultures under one roof,” she explained. “It gives kids a chance to learn about the amazing melting pot of cultures, not only in Wisconsin but around the world. The kids in our group are just mesmerized by all of the different (groups’) dances.”

She added that dancers “of all ethnicities are welcome in our group; we have African-Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, etc. If you want to dance, we can teach you.”

For Gokhan Kula of Brookfield, “Folk Fair is a chance to show my heritage, which I’m very proud of, to others. I really enjoy dancing in the Turam Turkish group.”

A naturalized citizen, Kula came from Turkey with his wife, Ayse, a doctor, to the United States in 2000 and to the Milwaukee area four years later. Residing in Chicago in his early American years and trained as an engineer, Kula recalled, “I had positive experiences in the workplace (yet) a few negative experiences with people in shopping malls, etc. But that could happen anywhere. Overall, people in the Midwest are pretty nice.”

Although Turks are generally identified with the Muslim faith, Kula “was raised in a very secular family ... . I only attended a mosque several times (for funerals and such). Personally, I haven’t experienced any (religion-related) problems in the U.S., but of course I couldn’t say the same for others who are Muslim.”

How have the Kulas transitioned to American culture while retaining the heritage of their homeland?

“We eat a lot of Turkish food,” the Brookfield man said. “A typical American diet contains a lot of meat and we are used to lots of vegetables. Fried zucchini chips, vegetable salad with tomato paste and olive oil, lentil soups, beans and different puddings are favorite Turkish meal staples. They are quick and easy to make.”