This coming Sunday will mark the debut of New England BIPOC Fest, a New Hampshire event bringing together leading BIPOC chefs, musicians, and nonprofit organizers for a celebration of the region’s communities of color. The festival will be held on the patio and parking lot of the Portsmouth restaurant Vida Cantina and feature performing arts groups like Mariachi de Boston, reggae artist B. Positive, and Seacoast West African Dance and Drum.
The festival will also host 30 nonprofits at pop-up booths and a selection of menu offerings from area restaurants. The lineup also includes live music, cultural performances, and a kids’ tent with interactive programming including read-alongs of books with diverse characters.
The festival’s founders are David Vargas, the chef and owner of Vida Cantina; Joanna “Jo” Kelley, assistant mayor of Portsmouth and the owner of Cup of Joe Café & Bar; Evan Mallett, chef and owner of Black Trumpet Bistro; and educator Marie Collins.
This year’s event is an expansion of Portsmouth’s BIPOC Festival, which was put on by the same group of leaders in 2021. Vargas said that last year’s event drew over 750 attendees; this year, they expect an even bigger crowd. Festival organizers have raised over $25,000, about $12,000 of which will be given back directly to organizations and business owners at the festival. The rest will go to cover event costs.
The festival takes place on land formerly owned by the Cowasuck Band of the Abenaki-Pennacook people, and will open with a blessing from Tribal representatives Paul and Denise Pouliot.
Kelley explained that her main reasons for organizing the event are connecting BIPOC business leaders in the region with one another, and helping non-BIPOC New Englanders learn about businesses and organizations in their area.
“When you grow up here in New England, especially upper New England outside of the bigger cities, it can be a really lonely thing,” Kelley explained. “Especially when you are mixed-race like myself — you don’t really get exposure to that other part of your culture.”
As a Black business owner in Portsmouth, Kelley recalled the time a man who’d “literally just bought from my business,” asked “why do people have to do this here?” referring to a Unity Rally protesting the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. While Portsmouth is Kelley’s hometown and where she now serves as assistant mayor, she finds locals sometimes still act “as if people of color are transplants,” she explained. However, last year’s Portsmouth festival helped her remember that were other BIPOC-owned businesses in the area like hers. “You walk away feeling stronger,” Kelley said. “You feel the strength of, ‘Man, I’m not in this alone.’ It’s strength by numbers, all the way through.”
David Vargas, who is Mexican American, agreed that a celebration of BIPOC-owned restaurants, organizations, and artists is an important community-building opportunity for people of color from the non-urban areas of New England.
Due to his clientele’s lack of familiarity with authentic Mexican cuisine, Vargas said his restaurant was “pigeonholed” at first. He added, “There’s a perception of what Mexican food should be — it should be cheap. It should only look one way.” Vargas faced a lot of pushback when he put more authentic Mexican dishes on his restaurant’s menu: “it was one of the hardest things about starting up a Mexican restaurant in New England,” he said.
Now, he plans to share his food with others at the New England BIPOC Fest and give them a chance to try his selection of “traditional flavors, traditional styles, with a New England twist.” He hopes that after seeing more BIPOC-owned business in the area like his and Kelley’s, festival-goers will decide “I can support this woman-owned, Black-owned business right here... maybe that’s where I get my coffee every single morning.”
New England BIPOC Fest, Sept. 25, noon-6 p.m., Vida Cantina, 2456 Lafayette Road, Portsmouth, N.H., free. vidacantinanh.com/events/bipocfest