Area residents enjoy annual Diversity Cultural Festival

For Niara Garcia and her brother, DeAngelo Garcia, the best part of Lawrence Township’s annual Diversity Cultural Festival wasn’t the Chinese yo-yo demonstration, the musical performances or even the food.

It was the henna tattoos that the 4-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother sported on the back of their hands, compliments of an exhibitor at the festival held Sunday afternoon at Lawrence High School.

“I like the tattoo,” Niara said.

This was the first time that the Garcia family attended the Diversity Cultural Festival, said their mother, Rasheda Garcia. She found out about it when she saw an electronic billboard advertising the event.

“I like the fact of the excitement of the diversity,” said Garcia, who lives in Lawrence Township.

That diversity was on full display – from Chinese dances to Islamic music sung by young children and to classical Indian dances.

At booths ringing the perimeter of the Lawrence High School Commons, visitors could have their name written in Arabic, or they could watch as it was written in Chinese calligraphy. At another table, women were showing off the art of Chinese paper-folding.

On the opposite side of the Commons, there was an assortment of food – from pizza and hot dogs, to Chinese food, Italian food, Indian cuisine and Trinidadian food.

“I want my children to see the different cultures and to understand the different cultures. There are a lot of different people in the world, and we have to embrace all of them,” Garcia said.

Mayor Christopher Bobbitt made that point, too, in his remarks.

“The special thing about Lawrence is its diversity. It’s the religions – Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim,” Bobbitt said as he welcomed the attendees. “Diversity Day is an event where we gather to learn about and celebrate our differences. It is not only to celebrate our diversity, but also to redouble our efforts at inclusion.”

Lawrence Township has always been a diverse community, said Pat Colavita, who sits on the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders. He presented a proclamation from the Freeholder board, celebrating the event, to its organizers.

Colavita, who served on township council and on the Lawrence Township Board of Education, said his family came to the United States from Italy in the early 1900s. The family settled in the Eldridge Park neighborhood in 1904.

“That was a very long time ago,” Colavita said. “We are fortunate. My brother still lives in that house. Back then, Eldridge Park was diversified. There were Russians and Poles and a little Italian community. Most of it is still there.”

Keynote speaker Shabnam Salih, health care adviser to Gov. Phil Murphy and a Lawrence resident, cautioned against making snap judgments about others before getting to know them. She was born in the United States, after her parents immigrated from Afghanistan.

Salih said she grew up in a traditional Muslim household in Hillsborough Township. Her father owned businesses in Newark, and sometimes she would accompany him to the city.

Salih said she realized “from a young age” that the people who lived in Newark were not like the people who lived in Hillsborough Township. There is diversity, she said.

“If I leave you with one thing, it’s that a lot of work [to embrace diversity] begins with yourself, internally,” Salih said. Do not make assumptions about a person, based on observing that person’s appearance, she said.