What island is known as the Pearl of the Caribbean? What Central American country has sharks in a freshwater lake? Which Pan American country was used by author Daniel Defoe as the setting for Robinson Crusoe?
The answers to those, and many other questions about the 40 nations coming to the GTA this July, shed light on the history and diversity of these countries. And such is the cultural diversity of the GTA that all 40 countries — from Bermuda to Brazil — have local communities here, ready to wave the flag and cheer on the athletes at the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.
The Toronto Star talked to Torontonians with ties to the visiting countries. If there is one thing that knits them together, it is a deep connection both to their homeland and to their adopted country.
“Anybody that’s representing your flag and your country gives you that bit of nostalgia that you feel so much as an immigrant,” says Mauricio Carvajal, originally from Bogota, Colombia.
The Games kick off on July 10, but until then here’s a snapshot view of the 40 participants — Canada makes the total 41 — and the local communities that will be welcoming them.
Barry Hall moved to Toronto from the Bahamas over a decade ago and says he’s developed a greater appreciation for his homeland. “To walk two to three miles on the beach with no one in sight — those are the things I like the most now about the Bahamas.”
With hundreds of islands and keys, there are so many unexplored areas, says Hall — who is president of the Association of Bahamians in Canada — and different areas have different dialects. “If you’re looking for a tranquil place, you’ll find it in the Bahamas,” he adds.
When it comes to sports, Hall says his home country has a strong track and field presence for its population size, and he’s looking forward to potentially seeing Bahamian boxers, swimmers and track and field athletes at the Pan Ams. “There is quite a bit of excitement about what’s going to be here this coming summer.”
Dailyn Martinez, a dancer and salsa teacher, came to Canada from Cuba in 2006, and says that “passion” is what makes her home country so special. “The energy, the passion, for everything – for every little task you do,” she says.
There’s also a beauty in the country’s diversity, a fusion of African and Spanish culture, alongside what developed later as Creole. “I think that’s the most important part of our culture,” says Julio Fonseca, who teaches Spanish and Latin American culture at York University.
Cuba is a developing country, Fonseca says, but locals find pleasure in everyday life. “Cubans, given what little they have, they will share it and they are happy. They’ll show you a smile all the time,” he says. “We find joy in many other things that other people might not.”
Martinez says she’s already excited to see her country in the Games, and Fonseca says boxing, volleyball, basketball and weightlifting are all popular with the Cuban community.
But both agree: Baseball is in a league of its own.
“Baseball is what hockey is to Canadians,” Fonseca explains. Dozens of Cubans have played in the major leagues over the years, including the occasionally infamous Havana-born Jose Canseco, whose 17-season baseball career included a stint with the Blue Jays.
There’s so much to love in Dominica, the place Oshawa resident Frances Delsol will always call “home” in her heart.
There’s Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO heritage site, more than 1,200 plant species in the country’s lush rainforests, and the purple Sisserou bird, which is found only on this island. Delsol says the island is full of colour, from its wildlife to locals’ costumes, and calls it “a place where Jurassic Park meets Disneyworld.”
“It’s so relaxed,” says Delsol, who is the Trade and Investment Commissioner for Dominica in Canada. “You’re never short of fruits and vegetables, and people talking to you – everybody is so friendly. It’s a village, it really is.”
Delsol, 57, decided to move to Canada in 1978. “I absolutely fell in love with the country,” she said, adding it gave her a chance to grow and gain an education.
Living in the GTA now, she’s excited for her home country’s team to be competing and says sprinters will be ones to watch. “We believe our runners will give the other people participating a run for their money – no pun intended,” she says with a laugh.
The Pan Ams are a chance for Haitians to forgot their travails, albeit temporarily. Five years after the earthquake that left the country physically in a shambles and politically unstable, Haitians like Antoine Dérose feel they finally have something to cheer about.
“Haitians are looking forward to anything that can lift up their spirits,” he says. “They are really dying for that. They look around them – the economic, the social and political situation is so bleak and everyday there’s a new scandal. They don’t even have a parliament now.
“People are looking for a way out of the bleakness, the negativity that is surrounding them. And this (the Pan Am Games) could be one opportunity if we can get a medal or something that will lift up the spirit of the nation.”
Dérose, 63, came to Canada in 1978. The majority of Haitians who fled their homeland to escape father-and-son dictators Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier settled in Montreal, but Dérose and a small group of other refugees made Toronto their home. Dérose, who does equity and engagement work for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, remains deeply attached to his homeland.
He welcomes Haiti’s participation as a bright spot on the horizon, marvelling at the fact they can produce a team – no matter how small. And he’s proud that his adopted country Canada is helping sponsor the athletes on their journey here.
Planned events include a dinner at La Creole, a Toronto Haitian restaurant, to honour the athletes, an international domino tournament hosted by Festival KompaZouk of Ontario, and a local soccer tournament.
Community activist Martha Matute-Quinonez came to Canada three years ago. The local community is divided into two distinct groups, she says — those who came in the early 1970s and those who came more recently — many of whom are professionals with university education and degrees. Matute was one of those professionals, a lawyer and law professor in her native Honduras.
Matute-Quinonez has a dream to build a better life for herself and her family. She plans to go to University of Toronto for a master’s of law in the fall so she can eventually return to her profession. “The biggest challenge in coming here is to get accreditation. There are doctors, lawyers all are facing going back to school even if we already have a lot of accreditation.”
The local community is very closely knit, she says. She and others here plan to have a reception for the Hondouran team competing at the Pan Am Games. “The athletes come here because they have dreams,” she says. “They don’t have sponsors or support, really. It’s a personal challenge.”
She and others in the community want to mark that by giving them awards. So even if they don’t win a medal at the games their efforts, their courage and their perseverance will be recognized.
When then 21-year-old Eduardo Lee came to Canada in 1994 he was captivated by residents’ directness. He admires that quality and prides himself on the fact he has learned it himself. Upon his arrival he studied design at Toronto’s OCAD, but eventually opened with a partner in 2009 Arepa Café, which specializes in a kind of Venezuelan or Colombian sandwich made of corn meal.
The Games have a special association for Lee. In 1983 when the Games were held in Caracas, Venezuela, Lee was gobsmacked by one of the stadiums created for the games. It changed his life forever.
“I was about 10 years old and I remember going to see the new stadium for diving,” says Lee. “Oh my God, it was heaven. It was for all sports that had to do with water – diving, swimming. That was the first moment I thought I would become a designer.”
“The sport of diving gave me a rush of course, but the infrastructure was amazing. I was amazed by it. It had one large pool, one diving pool with the platforms and a pool for the athletes to soak. The seats were yellow — my favourite colour.”
Lee hopes to host several events during the Games, featuring a number of guest chefs, including Carlos Fuenmayor, a Venezuelan-Colombian.