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Celebrating Caribbean culture


Sandy Edwards-Reed came in search of her roots.

And she found them - at least symbolically - in the flag-embroidered bandanas she purchased from a vendor. The bright green one represented Dominica, her mother's home country, and the one emblazoned with a sun, surrounded by red and black, was for Antigua, where her father is from.

"I try to stay connected," the Gwynn Oak resident said. "It's important to me to know where I came from."

That expression of cultural pride was on display yesterday at the Baltimore Caribbean Carnival at Druid Hill Park.

Organizers estimated nearly 25,000 attended the weekend celebration. They came for the bands who played soca and reggae, the vendors who sold shea butter beauty creams and tie-dyed dresses and the heaping plates of curried goat and roti, a type of flatbread.

Peak attendance came at Saturday's elaborate parade, where participants donned traditional glitter-smothered carnival costumes and shimmied to calypso rhythms.

The festival, in its 23rd year, attracts busloads of visitors from around the state and as far as New York.

But it has resonance for the West Indian community of Baltimore, which while still relatively small has strong roots in neighborhoods such as Park Heights. About 12,000 people of West Indian descent call Baltimore city and county home, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Elaine Simon, president of the Caribbean-American Carnival Association of Baltimore, which organizes the festival, said it is always the most anticipated event of the year. But it doesn't stop there. She founded the Baltimore Association of Caribbean Organizations to unite the efforts of Trinidadian and Jamaican groups and others. The organizations offers parties for members, scholarships to high school students and support to merchants.

"Some people think all we do is dance and sell food," she said. "But we have been here for years and have built communities."

In the Baltimore area, the Caribbean community is represented by scores of countries, but the largest numbers are from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, she said.

While the festival has tried to unite Caribbean natives in the area, some think it could go further, offering more educational opportunities.

Clement and Beverly McKenzie, who arrived in Baltimore from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1971, said many people are unaware of the diversity within the West Indian community.

"There are cultural similarities, but differences as well," said Clement McKenzie. "We have islands where people speak Dutch, Portuguese as well as English. We need to educate people."

"Right there," said their daughter Loran Bateman, pointing to an empty booth between two food vendors, "we should be teaching children how to basket weave. We should have them make the traditional dress of their countries. The culture is so important."

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