The man who founded London’s Sunfest is now a member of the Order of Canada.
Alfredo Caxaj was one of 78 people invested into the order yesterday, in his case, “for his contributions to the arts and culture, and for his promotion and celebration of diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism in Canada,” according to the citation.
Born and raised in Guatemala, Alfredo arrived in Canada as a political refugee in 1985 after his family’s involvement in the struggle against the country’s US-imposed dictatorship cost him two brothers.
The Canadian government settled the family in London, where they struggled for years with racism and discrimination and had trouble finding work.
Alfredo had played percussion professionally in Guatemala and turned to music as therapy, forming a Latin American folk band with two other Latin American musicians in the region.
He worked casual shifts at the post office for more than three years before he finally found an opportunity that would slowly change his life.
He got a job in the education department of a non-governmental organization that provided settlement services to refugees and immigrants. It allowed him to make connections with arts councils and the Department of Canadian Heritage, who gave him money for small arts and culture projects.
By the time the Chretien Liberals took office in 1993, Alfredo had established a performance series that was so popular that he decided to try and expand the concept into a full-on summer festival.
In 1995, he secured funding to launch Sunfest.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 people showed up the first year to see a group of musicians unknown to Londoners that included Alfredo’s own band.
Today, the free festival draws more than 100,000 and is a showcase for some of the greatest talent from around the world.
It also, in a small way, helps Alfredo cope with the enormous sense of loss that comes with leaving his homeland.
“It is a strange feeling because when I am in Guatemala, sometimes I feel like I don’t belong there anymore, but when I come back here, I have the same feeling sometimes,” he said in an interview with Roots Music Canada in 2019.
“They say to live in exile is one of the worst tortures.”