Melissa Raman Molitor works to raise the visibility of Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander Americans in Evanston through stories, art.
The Filipino greeting upon seeing someone isn’t ‘Hello how are you’? it’s ‘Have you eaten?’
Every memory I have growing up is tied to food ...
The kitchen table is where I first learned to make lumpia (a rite of passage in my family)
but through that ritual I also learned about who I was and where I came from.
The kitchen table is where language, recipes and traditions were passed down from my mother
and aunties to me, and it’s where I return when I want to feel close to them
and connected to something larger and more intimate at the same time.
-- Melissa Raman Molitor
“When I think about my childhood, I think about being bullied and being othered and, you know, many situations of forced assimilation,” says Evanston artist-activist-educator Melissa Raman Molitor, a first-generation Filipino-Indian-American whose family lived in the Detroit suburbs of Warren and then Troy, one of very few families of color.
“I don't know that I have spoken with an Asian person who didn't have a similar experience of the shame of bringing school lunches into the cafeteria,” she says.
We’re meeting at Studio 3, a brand new community art studio and gallery by and for young artists, Black, Brown, Indigenous artists, and artist activists that Molitor established at 617C Grove Street with fellow artist-activist Angela Lyonsmith. We’re chatting about The Kitchen Table Stories Project, Molitor’s multimedia healing justice initiative to center the voices, stories, and artwork of Evanston’s residents who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora (ASAPIA).
This past April, the Evanston Art Center appointed Melissa as its 2021-2022 Curatorial Fellow, and her stint will culminate in The Kitchen Table Stories exhibition that will elevate ASAPIA artists and engage the public in discourse that explores the intersections of race, country of origin, age, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, neurodiversity, and socioeconomics. The exhibit will show from next July 9 to August 21.
Peanut Butter, Jelly, and an Accordion
But back to school lunches.
“My mom was a wonderful cook," Melissa continues. "She would prepare these amazing meals for me, rice, adobo, pancit. These were her 'love language.' But I had been teased so many times. Kids would say, ‘Oh, it stinks!’ So I would throw it away. I just wanted peanut butter and jelly.”
Most of the residents where her family lived were white, many were Polish immigrants, Molitor says, and there wasn’t much acceptance of anything different. There was also lingering anti-Asian, anti-Japanese sentiment from WWII that was quite prevalent when she was growing up, so Melissa just tried to fit in -- while dreaming about getting out.
“At one point I found myself Polish dancing in the full outfit and trying to play an accordion,” she says. “Those kinds of experiences really built up. And it got to the point where I found myself having to navigate my home life and my school life. And they didn't really jive. I just knew I was different, and different unfortunately always seem to equal bad."
She says she knew from an early age that this was not where she wanted to spend her life. “And I knew this was not where I wanted to raise a family.”
Chicago: Free to Be
After receiving her BA in psychology and a BFA in ceramics and photography from University of Michigan, Melissa moved to Chicago in 1997 to attend The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for her Masters in Art Therapy. She embraced the diversity of Chicago, she says, with all of its faults.
“There was a freedom that came with not really having to qualify who I am and why I look the way I look,” she says.
In 2011, she moved to Evanston with her husband Brian when their two sons were starting preschool and kindergarten, and she’s been involved in the community through art ever since. She believes art-making is crucial to building community, exploring creative approaches to conversations with young people and families around diversity and equity, and achieving an antiracist community.
Given her childhood experiences, Melissa thought seriously about where she wanted to raise her kids. Evanston appealed to her husband Brian for its city feel, proximity to Chicago, the family’s ability to have green space they couldn’t have in Chicago, and their children's ability to walk to school. Her sister lived here, plus, Melissa says, Evanston’s schools interested her.
But the driving force for Melissa was to raise their kids in a community where they would see people who looked like them.
“That was the baseline,” she explains. “All of the other things we’ve discovered about Evanston have been the frosting on the cake.”
She says in Evanston her children see other kids who are of color, mixed, and specifically mixed white and Asian. “That’s one less thing, as a challenge or a barrier, that young kids have to deal with,” Molitor says. “They’re growing up in a place where at the very least they don’t look different. Well, they still look different, but they see lots of other people who look like them.”
Not the Nanny
Needless to say, Evanston’s not immune from prejudice, ignorance, and racism.
Once, years ago when Melissa was at the Jewel with one of her young sons--who during that stage of development presented more as white--a shopper asked if she was his nanny.
More recently, when the couple was renovating their kitchen, the job foreman came into the house early one morning when Melissa was in her pajamas, no makeup, hair up, making her sons’ school lunches.
“The guy comes walking through the kitchen. I say hello and he just ignores me,” Melissa remembers.
“Later on, the kids are at school and he's talking to Brian. I come in and he says, ‘I'm so sorry, I thought you were the help.’ I think that was the worst experience I've had because I was in my own home. I felt really violated and I didn't have my armor on. You hear these stories, and when they happen to me, I'm like, Oh my, that really happens, even here in Evanston.”
One of her sons, she says, went through a phase where he looked Asian and now looks mixed.
“But he even said to me, you know, I'm white passing, and sometimes it seems like it's easier.”
That, she says, informs a lot of the work she does around the Asian, South Asian Pacific Islander community, whose voices she believes haven’t been heard enough and who are are being silenced and erased by recent anti-Asian violence and the shuttering of small Asian businesses as a result of the pandemic.
“I think that the lack of representation and visibility in Evanston specifically is really sad,” she says.
Covid-19, Anti-Asian Violence, and a Festival
So last May (in 1992 Congress designated May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month) Molitor began the Kitchen Table Stories Project specifically to lift up Evanston’s Asian, South Asian Pacific Islander community, with various activities under its umbrella.
She started by organizing Evanston’s inaugural ASAPIA Heritage Arts Festival at Fountain Square, a successful celebration of food, art, performances, speakers, and music that drew more than 300 participants. Newly elected Mayor Daniel Biss was on hand and Melissa was thrilled that one of his first official acts as mayor was to sign Evanston's ASAPIA Month proclamation.
She was particularly driven to spearhead the event because of the huge surge in anti-Asian violence right then that came with the Covid-19 pandemic, all the media attention to it, and she says, the fact that no-one, no organization in Evanston, was doing anything.
"That didn’t sit well with me,” she says.
Her goal for the festival was to plant the seeds, and she hopes the exhibit at the Evanston Art Center and its related activities--a website featuring Evanston ASAPIA businesses, restaurants, and professionals, and stories, especially the stories, about the people behind the businesses--will build on that momentum and allow ASAPIA Evanstonians to claim space in the community.
Molitor has also begun to organize ASAPIA women within the community, starting a group earlier this year called Kitchen Table Talks, to which she invited seven women she knew.
“I wanted to create a space where women in the Asian community can talk about what’s going on, what they’re experiencing in the larger context of increased anti-Asian violence, what’s happening sociopolitically, and what that means for us as Asian women in Evanston who are raising Asian or mixed children,” Molitor explains.
"Members of Evanston’s Asian community are parents, we're on the PTA, we're on the D65 board," she says. "So it’s laying a foundation for activism around Asian issues in Evanston.”
The power in the gatherings is that there's immediate comfort when you're in a space that’s not white-dominated, Molitor explains. "That’s so rare," she says. Next month the group will meet for a third time, with 42 people on the sign-up sheet.
You need to be American; You need to preserve your traditions
Like many immigrants and children of immigrants, Melissa danced the delicate dance: assimilate ... and to hold onto one's heritage.
"My parents had very different views about it," Melissa remembers. "My dad is from India, and he was very much, ‘We need to assimilate,’ ‘We will not speak a language other than English at home,’ ‘You need to be as American as you can because you already are behind.’ And, ‘You need to succeed.’ So everything was about proving you're just as good, if not better," she says.
On the other hand, her mom was Filipino, and through her, Molitor feels a strong pull toward her ancestry and heritage.
Every weekend, about 10 Filipino families from all over Metro Detroit would get together and all of the moms and 'aunties' would cook these huge feasts. Molitor heard and understood the Filipino language Tagalog, which all the families spoke at these gatherings.
"It was very much about preserving traditions. Everything was about family and everything was multi-generational, intergenerational," she says.
At Home in Evanston
Today, Melissa is comfortable with the seeming dichotomy. She is a proud Filipino-Indian-American. She wants to be seen, to belong, to share a bond with others — and not just other Asian Americans, but all Americans. And she wants to ensure that other ASAPIA in this community--and all other 'hyphenated' Americans for that matter, have that opportunity as well.
“I really do love living in Evanston. I think we have a long way to go, just like anywhere else," Melissa says as we say goodbye. "But I love that we're in a community where people are willing to have these conversations around race and equity and are trying to do something about it, especially in our schools. There's gonna be resistance, and some of the resistance has been really ugly. I've experienced that over the last year. But when I look at where we are and where I grew up? I couldn't even imagine. It's a step in the right direction.”