By Melissa Renee Perry
Last year, May was officially declared Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander (ASPA) Heritage Month in Evanston. Melissa Raman Moliter, founder of Evanston ASPA and key proponent of the month, felt the declaration was long overdue, especially with the alarming and very visible rise of xenophobia and violence against Asian Americans in recent years.
“The city historically has not actively celebrated heritage month,” Melissa says. “I was really sort of disheartened by the fact that the city and organizations and groups within the city were doing very little to uplift and support the Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander community in light of everything that was happening.”
After celebrating ASPA month city-wide for the first time last year, this year’s programming has expanded significantly, thanks to increased funding from agencies such as the Illinois Arts Council and the Evanston Community Foundation, business sponsorships, and community support.
“We decided to go bigger this year and the response has been fantastic,” Melissa says.
At the center of the programming is visibility, cultural appreciation, and representation, which all are things that Melissa – a first-generation Filipino-Indian-American who grew up in the predominantly white suburbs of Detroit – recalls missing out on during her childhood. Many of her childhood experiences fuel her work as an Evanston resident, artist, educator, and activist.
In an interview with Dear Evanston last year, Melissa recalled often being teased by her classmates for the homemade lunches that her mom would prepare, which cultivated feelings of shame and embarrassment and a strong desire to “fit in.” She also spoke of navigating the lingering anti-Asian sentiment from WWII in her community.
“I grew up in a place and a time where assimilation was the only option in order to survive and I don't want that for our children,” she says. “That's the work I feel that we need to be doing as a community to ensure that future generations don't have that experience.”
While the full month’s programming calendar can be found here on the Evanston ASPA website, the Umbrella Festival is one of the most highly anticipated events, as it brings together live performances, activities, and vendors for a (free) cultural celebration for all ages. The inspiration behind the term “umbrella” was meant to signify the vastness of the ASPA diaspora, Melissa explains.
“Saying Asian American is helpful in the sense that it allows for solidarity and ways to bring people together, but what gets lost is just the many different countries and cultures and ethnicities that fall under the Asian American umbrella,” Melissa says. “So that's the inspiration for the umbrella art festival, to really bring awareness to the fact that there are so many different people, communities, and cultures that fall under that umbrella.”
A new aspect of ASPA month this year is the May Mart challenge. On the Evanston ASPA website, there is a comprehensive list of local Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander owned businesses. To participate, residents can pick up a postcard at participating businesses and everyone who fills their card with five visits throughout the month of May and submits it by June 10th will be entered to win a $100 E-Town gift card.
“It's a fun way to get people involved and to let people know about the many Asian-owned businesses that we have in our city,” Melissa says.
To close out the month on May 31, Kids Create Change will host a lantern floating ceremony at Arrington Lagoon, as a way for community members to come together to recognize the various losses that have occurred over the past two years as a result of the pandemic.
“It's an opportunity for the community at large to come together to kind of honor and memorialize the losses that happened over the last couple of years,” Melissa says. “When I say losses it's not just loved ones, it's also jobs and homes and relationships and all of those losses we've all had to process in isolation.”
Additional programming this month includes two virtual bystander-intervention sessions hosted by Advancing Justice Chicago, multiple movie nights at Skokie Public Library, lantern making workshops, and much more. The free bystander intervention training will educate participants on the dangers that Asian Americans have and continue to face in the United States and prepare them to safely intervene when witnessing a case of anti-Asian harassment.
Along with amplifying Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander cultures, business, and residents, one of the things that Melissa is most looking forward to is being able to gather in community.
“I'm really looking forward to the festival and not only because it's a celebration of culture and art, but also because it'll be nice to see people,” she says. “There's just so many reasons to celebrate and show gratitude for what we do have.”
As for what’s next for her activism work, Melissa is currently partnering with the Evanston History Center to establish “Placemaking,” a historical archive of Evanston’s Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander community.
“That's something that we are working to establish as a way to create a resource for educators, but also families,” she says.“I think that the fact that there isn't any documentation or an archive that exists really plays into that perpetual foreigner myth.”
To learn more about ASPA month and activities in Evanston, make sure to visit https://www.evanstonaspa.org. To learn more about Melissa, check out this profile, written by Nina Kavin, from September 2021.