Three years ago, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-Asian violence, a celebration of the Asian community rose up in Evanston.

The Umbrella Arts Festival, the first of its kind in Evanston, has blossomed each spring since then. The free one-day event has grown from some 100 people gathered downtown to thousands representing cultures from more than 40 countries.

Festival goers celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the 2022 Umbrella Arts Festival. Credit: Evanston Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American

This year’s Fountain Square event, to be held 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 13, will feature more than 35 vendors and artists as well as live performances, music and dance.

Speakers are expected to include human rights and racial equity advocate Josina Morita, the first Asian American Cook County commissioner, who will discuss the importance of Asian representation. Morita is an Evanston Second Ward resident and represents Cook County’s 13th District. She is founding chair of the Asian American Caucus, a group that advocates for immigrants, Asian American studies and representation in Illinois.

Other scheduled speakers are Mayor Daniel Biss, State Rep. Jen Gong-Gershowitz (D-17th District) and District 65 school board member Donna Wang Su.

The Evanston Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American (ASPA) group is a community of volunteers founded in 2020. It hosts the Umbrella Arts Festival along with other sponsors. The annual event is designed to provide “opportunities to raise awareness, educate and engage people in dialogues that counter the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence that continues throughout the country,” according the ASPA website.

The Umbrella Arts Festival schedule of events. Credit: Evanston Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American

From its inception, the need was clear, said Melissa Raman Molitor, the ASPA’s founding director.

“There had been so much that the Asian American community endured during the height of the pandemic with the anti-Asian rhetoric and the rise in anti-Asian violence,” Molitor said. “There was nothing in place in our community to address it. There was no infrastructure and no spaces that centered our community to offer support. It really was a wake-up call, like, okay, the Asian American community in Evanston is really invisible.”

This narrative has slowly been changing, she said. ASPA’s passion for Asian culture increased the visibility of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May in Evanston, and it seems to be infectious.

Last year, ASPA launched an annual Lantern Festival, its second event to honor Asian Heritage Month. Many Asian communities decorate and release lanterns on bodies of water to celebrate the change in seasons and commemorate lost loved ones. ASPA held lantern-making events leading up to this year’s festival on May 30 at Arrington Lagoon. At the Umbrella Arts Festival this weekend, participants can make lanterns out of biodegradable materials, Molitor said. Lanterns will be retrieved from the lagoon at the conclusion of the festival.

“I think that has been the most powerful thing that’s happened — is that there has been an increased sense of belonging for the Asian American community,” Molitor said.

Molitor encouraged the Evanston Public Library to host events to celebrate Asian Heritage Month, which Molitor said the library hadn’t done before last year. This year, the library has a handful of events, including an origami-making class.

Within the past couple of years, Molitor has seen clubs highlighting Asian culture in District 65. You can see a full calendar of events celebrating Asian Heritage Month on ASPA’s website.

ASPA is working to bring an Asian American arts and culture center to Evanston. Volunteers are surveying the Asian community and Evanston at large.

The Umbrella Arts Festival is free and open to all ages. ASPA is also looking for volunteers for the events.

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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