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Norwich celebrates diversity with Dominican flagraising, Black business expo

Norwich — The Dominican Republic flag fluttered in the wind near City Hall on Saturday as Norwich celebrated its diversity with a day full of multicultural events — from a flagraising ceremony to a Black-owned business expo.

The Dominican Republic’s red, white and blue flag was raised alongside the American flag to the tune of the Caribbean nation’s national anthem, sung loudly and proudly by a crowd of city residents with roots in the Dominican community.

Joined by city Mayor Peter Nystrom and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, Dominican business owners, community leaders, students and artisans from Norwich gathered to celebrate their culture and community on the 178th anniversary of the Dominican Republic’s independence. They danced on the plaza as musicians performed merengue tipico dominicano music and applauded a stream of speakers who led the bilingual ceremony in English and Spanish.

Community leaders recognized several Dominican folks for their work to build up their community, including Jeffrey and Kendy Zapata from JBS Barber Spa; Carlos Ventura from Ventura Barbershop; and Maria Colon, a member of the Foundry 66 shared business space and coordinator of the city’s Dominican festival.

Ramon Almonte Bonilla, from Puerto Plata, a city in the Dominican Republic, and his daughter Niurka Almonte were among those recognized.

Ramon Almonte moved to Norwich in 2000 with four daughters: one who is now a lawyer, one who is a doctor, one who is a student at the University of Connecticut and one who is a senior at Norwich Free Academy.

“Norwich is the best of the best,” he said, praising his city for giving him and his family the opportunity “to do everything.”

He said that seeing the Dominican community gathered downtown was “unbelievable” and made him even prouder of his city.

“It feels good to be here, it shows the Dominican community is all getting together and uniting,” said his youngest, 17-year-old Arlette Amonte Rivera.

William D. Abreu of Norwich spoke during the ceremony and said he was proud to see such a big turnout. The graphic designer, web designer, home improvement contractor and former restaurant owner attended the event with his three young daughters. He’s been spearheading local efforts to connect the Dominican community in his city.

“Dominican people like to work and are always working to support people. Having us all together in a beautiful city like this is a great idea for everyone,” said Abreu, who came here from Jarabacoa, La Vega, Dominican Republic, in 2006. “We want to bring these people together to be a part of a community so we can help others. We’re all here, we just need to be connected. So that’s why we’re here today.”

Lucas Pimentel, who is the CEO of Danbury-based LEAD, Latinos for Education Advocacy and Diversity, said he has helped to start conversations about Latinx community building in Norwich and New London and has been met with overwhelming support. During the ceremony, he praised the city for proudly celebrating the Dominican community.

“Today is the first time that the Dominican flag has been flying in Norwich and that is an amazing day,” he said. “Dominicans are hard workers and we like to enjoy life. There aren't happier people than Dominicans and even in our darkest moments we are still dancing,” he said as an upbeat Dominican song boomed in the background.

“We want to become a fabric of the Norwich community,” he said, adding that he knows Dominican Norwich residents will help make it an even more successful, inclusive and prosperous place.

The flagraising ceremony followed a 9 a.m. breakfast to celebrate the Dominican holiday and was followed by an evening celebration, both at Latin Quarters, a night club in the city.

Meanwhile, other spots in the city were bustling as Black business owners promoted their products and passions. Pop-up stores highlighted streetwear on Main Street while Foundry 66 on Franklin Street transformed into a fashion runway, portrait studio and shopping center.

The city’s first Black History Month Black-owned business and vendor fair, organized by Black small-business owner Tiara Waters, featured more than 30 vendors promoting goods and services ranging from fashion to photography.

“We probably have everything you could imagine here, from mental health care and doulas to designers,” Waters said.

Waters, owner of Flowing Waters Massage, said she developed the idea for the fair when she noticed a lack of Black History Month events celebrating Black business owners in the city.

“Once upon a time Norwich was booming with small businesses and we’ve got to bring that back,” said Waters, who was born and raised in Norwich and now lives in New London.

“Being a Black business owner myself, and a mother, I feel that growing up I didn’t see much of people like me in certain aspects, like business ownership. I thought I had to go to college and that was the only option," she said. "I ended up going to massage school, and I want people to see that there’s different things they can do to grow and aspire to what they want to be.”

While they were preparing for the event, Waters said she watched her 3-year-old daughter Ayanna strike pose after pose for photographer Xynaihah Caldwell, mimicking what she’d seen models doing. The photographer and models cheered her on showing her new poses.

“That’s the whole point of this entire thing” Waters said.

Caldwell, 20, who operated a pop-up portrait studio at the vendor fair for her photography company XyVibeVisualz, said the event was outside of her comfort zone but a great way to connect with other local business owners.

“It’s just beautiful — it’s so good that we’re able to come together, meet each other and see all the different brands that people created,” she said.

Intertwined with musical performances and games, the free event gave Black and brown business owners a space to showcase their companies, organizations and talents: from Lovely Luxury Extensions hair services, to food from Uncle D’s Blazin' BBQ and fashion by Norwich-based clothing brands Other Worldly and One Power Kingdom.

The first-of-its-kind event gave folks the opportunity to network with other business owners and meet new customers, Waters said.

One young entrepreneur set up a space to promote her new business, GlossyJco, selling lip glosses, lip scrubs and bracelets. Juvie Ventura, 15, who moved to Norwich from the Bronx in 2020, started making bracelets to keep her busy while she recovered from a back surgery in 2020. Soon she expanded into making beauty products and decided to launch a business.

Brianna Chambers, 34, promoted her online shop, called Crown Your Culture Love Your Roots, and displayed some of its products. She offers custom apparel, sneakers and a new line of Caribbean island pride swimwear. Her blog, which shares a name with her clothing brand, is focused on sharing tips on everything from financing to fashion to building up the Black and brown community, she said.

“The goal is to merge both fashion and culture together, bring awareness to Black entrepreneurship and just bridge the gap,” she said.

The expo and vendor fair ran until about 5 p.m., finishing off with a fashion show that showcased local designers' styles.

t.hartz@theday.com

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