Founded in 1970, Folklorama is Winnipeg’s premier annual festival, featuring some 3,000 performers and 20,000 volunteers in a two week celebration of the city’s ethnic communities, full of food, music, dance and art. It is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the world.
Christian Hidalgo-Mazzei is the agency producer with Folklorama, helping the city’s multicultural performing arts groups share their talents at home and abroad. This is his story.
Once an aspiring diplomat, Christian Hildago-Mazzei has carved out a similar career path for himself by collaborating with and promoting Winnipeg’s abundance of multicultural artists and musicians.
I’m the longest serving staff member of Folklorama and basically, as of 2020, I’ll have been with Folklorama for 30 years. I consider myself a part of the creative team. The festival just celebrated 50 years and – with all humility aside (*grins*) – I’ve played a major role in the success of what the festival is today. I got a summer job here right out of university in 1990 and never left. So I consider myself very fortunate.
My parents emigrated from Chile to Canada in 1977. A lot of people ask me: why did you come to Canada? Well I had no choice, they took me – I was a 12 year-old kid that had just finished grade seven! The move itself wasn’t such a huge event, because my dad’s job as a captain within the Chilean correctional service required for him to travel and move a lot within Chile, so we had moved a number of times already and this was just another move.
The reason we came to Canada was because Chile by then was fully under the grip of the Pinochet dictatorship. In 1973 there was a coup d’état and Pinochet came to power, and in the years that followed a lot of people were illegally jailed, detained, killed, tortured, all those things. As a result, the country was put under a lot of international pressure from its economic partners, Canada being one of those countries. And a lot of other organizations – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross, United Nations – were criticizing the Pinochet government for its abuse of its citizens. So in an effort to try and say that they weren’t that bad, the regime came up with a decree that those individuals charged with political crimes could serve their sentences outside of Chile if another country was willing to take them in.
After the CIA-backed overthrow of its democratically-elected socialist government on September 11, 1973, Chile was placed under the ruthless control of General Augusto Pinochet (centre) and his military junta for the next seventeen years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Out of the blue my dad, who was a non-partisan government worker, was hired to coordinate this program. His job was to work with these different agencies and embassies to funnel political prisoners out of the country. And one of the destinations was Canada, so my dad became very close friends with the Canadian ambassador and the first secretary of the Canadian embassy. So this happened for a couple years, and then my dad in-turn was accused of being a leftist, being a sympathizer, being too lenient, being too friendly towards jailed dissidents, and he was fired. We could have stayed, given the fact that my dad was fired as punishment for his supposed wrongdoing – though he was fired directly by Pinochet himself, so his career was really cut short. He was never going to get a job anywhere in Chile again.
But my dad was proud, he said I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m going to stay in Chile. However, his colleagues, particularly a man from an international aid agency told him no, he had to get out. They told him it’s not safe, he had no job, he had four kids, why didn’t he go to Canada? At first my dad didn’t want to leave Chile, but he started to see that he had no job, the family’s savings were going, and we just had to get out. So we immigrated on a ministerial permit – remember, this was 1977 – so someone at the Canadian embassy in Chile literally picked up the phone and called Ottawa and said: Listen, this family is coming. And so we came.
For me, it was like: oh wow, Canada – I’m going on a plane, this is a big trip! At 12 years-old you don’t realize what immigrating actually means. You don’t actually realize until you land here and think to yourself about how you just left your country and probably aren’t going to see your friends or other family for God knows how long. I was just thinking that I was going on vacation. But lo and behold, all of a sudden we were in this whole new country and I was in school a couple days later.
The weather was quite shocking to me. It was minus 30-something degrees, it was freezing cold, and believe it or not when we arrived our home for the first couple of weeks was the Balmoral Hotel. And one of the other things that surprised me was the apparent lack of knowledge about Chile. Whether it was talking to some of the other kids in school or even some of the teachers, they would say things like: what part of Mexico is Chile in? And in my head I’m going, holy smokes, I know where Canada is, but you don’t know where Chile is? And people would ask me: well how did you get here? …By plane! Or things like: well, what did you live in there? … A house. Those things as a kid kind of shocked me a bit.
Christian Hildago-Mazzei (second from right) arrives with his family at the Winnipeg airport, February 1, 1977.
And I quite vividly remember, as newly arrived refugee immigrants there is this misconception that everything is gifted to you on a silver platter. No, we literally had to pay everything right back; those plane tickets, well, you get a bill. But obviously they give you some time to pay it off. The other thing was, when people would ask me where I was from I would say Chile, and they’d respond: well you don’t look Chilean. Well what does a Chilean look like, I have no idea! And so you start to think about those things. I’d never considered myself non-white – I’m pretty Caucasian, I think, right?
But interestingly enough, Chile just like Canada is a country full of immigrants. My mother’s family was originally from Italy, and so I have two last names. In Spanish-speaking countries, one of the legacies that the Spanish left is that when you’re born and registered you take both your families’ last names, and so genealogy in Spanish-speaking countries is very simple. ‘Hidalgo’ is my dad, ‘Mazzei’ is my mom; I’m a product of them. And not that I suffered any serious discrimination, I was just a regular kid, but there was a bit of bullying at school. I remember the bully in the class telling me one time: when you get married, are you gonna marry one of your own? And I remember, I thought about it and said smugly: yeah, she’ll be human!
At the time there was also a lot of Chileans arriving in Winnipeg; some of them that came before us were actually people that my dad had sent over. So in my ESL class, probably 80% of the students were Chileans and we spoke Spanish all the time, so our English learning wasn’t there. My dad noticed that and came to my school to ask I be put in a regular class.
You know, there is a perception out there – and these things change of course, I’m referring to 40-something years ago, but it still somewhat exists – there is a perception that immigrants are not smart or are not educated, but that’s not the case. Just because you don’t speak English doesn’t mean that you’re stupid. We were put back a year in school. Although, we came around the same time as when the Metric system was just being introduced into Canada – and we grew up with the Metric system. So I was teaching the other grade 7 kids about the Metric system!
But music – I have to let you know that I have an identical twin brother, and that made our integration way easier because we were twins, and we were musically talented. We both started singing and playing music when we were 10 and we were part of groups that competed in academic and cultural competitions in Chile in 1975-76. And so I was on TV back home in the seventies, black-and-white, and also did a couple radio shows. Music was a real part of us, and I think that helped the transition of being accepted in school.
In Grade 8 my brother and I actually performed at a school assembly. ABBA was big back then, so we sang ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Fernando’, but in Spanish – the whole gym went silent. And when we finished playing the whole place just erupted. That was a real turning point, a before and after. That motivated me to continue to play music.
But soon I began to question my cultural identity – and that’s what happens when you come to Canada, because who are you? You’re not Canadian, but you’re also not Chilean. You grow up with this sense of what am I? And when I met all the Chilean kids here, and they told me about all the terrible things that had happened to their parents and how they were jailed and so on, I thought: what are you talking about? I had just come from Chile but never experienced any of that. And so I began to question what had actually happened – why am I here? Why are all these other Chilean people here? What was happening in my home country?
From then on I wanted to absorb everything I could in a political and cultural sense, and one of the things I made a point of doing was to preserve my language. Now when I go back home, and I go quite a bit, my Spanish is still on par with anyone there and they have no idea I’m from Canada, which is great. I’m very proud of that because it means I’ve never lost touch with my language.
So in 1986 – Pinochet was still in power – I had saved enough money to go home and go backpacking. But going back home for the first time, it’s shocking, because you think that when you leave somewhere everything kind of freezes. As if you can put a pause on it, and when you return then you can pick back up where you left off with your friends and family and everything. But life goes on, right?
And I felt so strange – everything felt so small, so dirty. There were so many emotions going through my head. One of the things that struck me the most was the poverty, people begging on the streets. And 1986 was a very significant year in Chilean political history because that was the year that people started rebelling against the dictatorship. People were protesting, which was illegal, and there was turmoil and I was able to see those things happening. It was quite eye-opening.
“Stop the crimes! Away with Pinochet!” – a leaflet calling for action against military rule. After 10 years of brutal dictatorship, by the early 1980s Chilean civil society began to effectively push back through organized strikes and street protests. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
So after that I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and how to go to university, because I didn’t want my parents to pay for it. And that’s something to be said about parents that immigrate with children. My parents are my heroes – to be able to just pack everything up and move to a new country, that takes courage. Like, I look at myself right and I have a family – would I be able to do that? I don’t know…. (*pauses*). But they did that, and kudos to them.
And my dad, he would work as a labourer all day at a plant, come home, and then we would work together as a family doing 2-3 janitorial jobs a night. My twin brother and I, beginning in late junior high, we would work. We would go clean offices. And this is why I never smoked, because my job (*laughs*), my job was to clean ashtrays. And back then you could smoke anywhere! So my job was to go around and empty ashtrays and put them back, and that smell….that was my job.
We also worked on a paper route, and when I was seventeen I got a summer job washing windows, which turned out to be a casual year-round job. The guy that owned it – I think he’s still in business – he would provide window and rug cleaning and other services to rich neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, because he saw something in me and believed in me, that guy paid for my university.
So I graduated with a double major in political science and geography. I wanted to travel the world, I wanted to be a diplomat. You know, I speak English, Spanish and can defend myself if I have to in French, Italian and Portuguese. And so I applied to the Foreign Service but didn’t get it. But my girlfriend at the time got a job at Folklorama, and so I started hanging out here.
I started volunteering – not that I really cared about the organization, but because I just wanted to hang out with my girlfriend. Though I liked what I saw, and I had indirectly been involved with Folklorama before through the Chilean and Italian pavilions. A little while later, one of the girls on the performing arts side went on an extended medical leave and someone said maybe I should stick around. So they asked me to stay, and I’ve never left.
And that’s how I got involved in Folklorama, which I’ve found to be a great organization that celebrates the diversity of Canada. Over the last 30 years I’ve been able to create a career path that’s been everything I wanted to do. Going back to when I wanted to be a diplomat – technically, I’ve done that, right here in Winnipeg. Because through my job I’ve been able to help, and work with and collaborate with so many different ethnic communities in the city.
But during the last 15 years I’ve also worked much more at the international level. I’ve wanted to position Folklorama at the world stage. Folklorama, it’s not an entity that operates on its own. And sometimes people forget what we do at Folklorama. Most people see us as a song and dance festival, a celebration – which it is! But that can sometimes overshadow why we do it, and it’s very simple. With Folklorama, we do it to preserve and share culture, because if we don’t, culture dies. If you don’t practice your language, you lose it – if you don’t practice it with your kid, it’s gone, right?
Preserving cultural traditions and intangible cultural heritage, this is what I’ve become passionate about over the past 20 years. Particularly as it pertains to Canada, because our country is so multicultural. For example, the Filipino family that puts their child into dance, the preservation of their cultural heritage doesn’t stop on August 18 with the end of Folklorama’s festival, right? So in my mind, I’m thinking, well why don’t we as an organization prolong our work the same way?
A young boy performs at the Tamil pavilion during Folklorama in August, 2010. Photo: Flickr/seniwati
A lot of governments all over the world spend a lot of money and put a lot of emphasis on preserving tangible things, things that you see – think of the heritage buildings in Winnipeg. But intangible cultural heritage, nobody cares really. Look at Indigenous peoples in Canada, everything is passed on verbally; if that’s not practiced, things die. One of the challenges I’ve seen in the world is: what does it mean to live in a multicultural society? What does it mean to be a Chilean-Canadian, or whatever it is?
A lot of people around the world, and in Canada, wherever, they confuse terminology and concepts; they interchange the words of nationality, citizenship, ethnicity, culture, heritage and take them as being synonymous. But they’re not. The passport you travel under, or the country you live in does not define you culturally. The only person or body or entity that can define you, is you.
One of the things I do is work in promoting cultural groups in the city to other festivals around the world, and I have a problem with a lot festivals that, when I approach them about a Winnipeg-based, say Ukrainian-Canadian group that are terrific, they get dismissed as being inauthentic because they aren’t from the Ukraine. There’s the perception that if you don’t reside within the root nation’s borders then the product is of lesser quality.
On the contrary, the level of preservation of culture here in Canada is more true and authentic then back home. Listen, in the international world of cultural groups, guess where you find the best Turkish folklore groups travelling around the world preserving Turkish culture – they’re from Germany. The best African performing groups – they’re based in France. It doesn’t matter where you live, and that’s the message.
So getting back to why I’m still here at Folklorama, I guess it’s because I feel that’s something I’m responsible for sharing and promoting. I’m not saying Canada’s perfect or that Folklorama’s festival is perfect, but I think that as a community we’re able to embrace two weeks in August where we all get along and celebrate our differences. And I see when I travel around the world that immigration is now viewed as a threat more and more; people of different cultures are being seen as a threat by some in the cultural majority. But I think festivals such as Folklorama help educate and facilitate that process of integration and acceptance.
We’re way more than just song and dance, right. So sometimes we’re perceived as a frivolous celebration, which….we’re partly responsible for because that’s how we promote ourselves. *laughs* But! We’re more than that. The other thing too, I’m very proud of the fact that when I compare our festival to other festivals around the world in terms of what it means to the city, our budget, our economic impact – we’re pretty big. We’re pretty solid, we do a good job. And it’s like, just because you’re preserving and sharing culture in a non-profit setting doesn’t mean you have to be amateur. We take a very professional approach and we’re fiscally responsible, and we don’t have to rely on handouts or grants.
Now, Folklorama went through a lot of previous hardship around 1993. Twenty-something years in, we were $250,000 in the hole and it took a government bailout to keep us alive. After that a consulting company was brought in to see how we could keep this little festival alive and in their report they noted how me, this little guy in the back room working on a typewriter, was booking shows for performing arts groups. They said: give this guy some support, give him some funding, because outside of the two-week festival he can generate money. So that’s what I did.
After restructuring in 1993 – and largely due to Hildago-Mazzei’s leadership – Folklorama has been able to evolve from a mostly festival-based organization to now also being a year-round talent agency for Winnipeg’s multicultural performing arts groups.
We have performers and artists that rehearse all year round and are looking for opportunities to share and perform for people at any point in the year, and I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve been able to create a talent agency that is competitive to others but is also the only one that focuses specifically on multicultural talent.
Because that’s what I found when I first got into this business: media buyers and entertainment planners in Canada and elsewhere – wedding planners in particular – they have no problem paying a string quartet or a DJ whatever their asking price is. But when it comes to a cultural group, there’s this expectation that they should almost be performing free because it’s exposure for them or they are obligated to share their culture, whatever. So I’m saying: no, they artists, they’re musicians. The fact that they might play Caribbean music is irrelevant. They are musicians and they should be paid as such. It’s about educating the audience but also educating the artist.
So through Folklorama I’ve been able to develop this entertainment production group that not only provides talent locally, but nationally and internationally. I’m sending groups abroad, we’re bringing groups in – because it’s about cultural exchanges. We have some really amazing groups in this city that have been around for 40, 50, 60 years. Really solid groups. Why shouldn’t they be enabled to travel abroad and show what they do? When they go to a festival somewhere they’re representing their community, but also our festival, our city, our province, our country, and sharing what they do with the rest of the world.
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