On Sunday Sept. 16, Wheaton’s Memorial Park was transformed into a showcase for the Community Relations Commission’s first ever “Festival of Cultures.”
The festival was the successor of a much smaller “World Tour Day” the Commission sponsored in previous years. There were 30 unique cultural groups that brought a taste of their heritage to the park for the community to enjoy, setting up informational booths, serving ethnic dishes and displaying handmade cultural items.
The Chicago Folklore Ensemble and the Gros Ngolle Pokossi Afro Jazz Band filled Memorial Park with lively cultural music as approximately 800 visitors stopped by each culture’s presentation. Groups were represented by one to 12 people from Wheaton or the surrounding area.
Shayne Moore, communications officer for the Community Relations Commision, described the Commission’s vision for the festival as “a party.” In response to recent political division, she hoped a celebratory event would be “an affirming thing to do for the community.”
The idea for the Festival of Cultures was born at a local photography exhibition in which churches, artists and community members, in addition to Wheaton College students and faculty, collaborated to celebrate local refugees, according to festival chairperson Tony Asta. This grew into a larger event in Memorial Park to replace World Tour Day: the Festival of Cultures.
Asta said, “Everyone I’ve run into has embraced this idea … the energy has been great.” The Festival of Cultures borrowed World Tour Day’s themes and ideas and put them on a much larger scale. Shayne Moore said the Festival of Cultures has been “reimagined and is unrecognizable to what it used to be.”
The Commission hoped the festival would open the community’s eye to the widespread diversity of the city’s population. A Wheaton graduate herself, Moore noted,
“As a person of faith, I’m proud to host this event and be a welcoming place for all people.” Wheaton resident Tam Nguyen proudly represented Vietnam by displaying books of calligraphy.
Nguyen described the festival as “a quick way to introduce various cultures, but to go to the actual country.”
Bhim Tapa, representing Nepal, presented information about his culture and served hot Nepali tea to those in attendance — but Tapa came to the festival with a larger purpose in mind. He and his team also represented World Relief DuPage/Aurora, an organization seeking to rebuild lives for refugees in the suburban Chicago area.
Throughout the day, the Nepali table collected the information of those interested in assisting the organization’s efforts. Tapa hoped the Festival would ensure that “the people … know that we, the Nepali community, live in Wheaton.”
The Wheaton College art department invited the community to help paint an interactive tree mural at the festival. Kendall Baxter (‘19) said the tree represented the fact that everyone in Wheaton is rooted in the same community.
Everyone was invited to paint their own leaf, showing how each individual fits in and grows together as one. “We have this idea of what Wheaton looks like,” Baxter said.
“This festival is really cool because Wheaton is full of diversity and you wouldn’t even know it.” Evelyn Cobb, a Puerto Rican pastor living in Aurora, Ill., celebrated her homeland with brochures, beef and veggie empanadas, fried bananas and other dishes. Cobb came representing a ministry based in Octavia, Ill. which provides disaster relief to Puerto Rico in the context of the Christian faith.
“Any fear of another culture can be eradicated just through the knowledge of who we are,” she said.
Chairperson Tony Asta hoped that he and his team’s five months of event planning would result in “ non-threatening and accepting environment a festive occasion.” To say the least, the Festival of Cultures shed light on the people in the Wheaton community with rich and diverse cultural histories that we may otherwise overlook.
Photo by Valerie Halim