Nicholas Ruiz-Coburn, 12, said he’s been attending Ethnic Festivals with his grandmother since he was at least 4 years old. The Julian Middle School seventh-grader was manning a table full of wares, some of which were handcrafted by his grandmother, Dorothy Antonio. The intricate items — elaborate dreamcatchers, necklaces, bracelets, earrings — hold histories sprung from the family’s San Carlos Apache roots. 

“I’ve been part of this since Nicholas was a little boy,” said Antonio, adding that she keeps coming because District 97 keeps inviting her back; perhaps so she can keep alive the stories encapsulated in her wares.

Why do they call them dreamcatchers? Antonio was asked

“They’re supposed to catch the good and the bad dreams,” she said. “In the morning, all the bad dreams just disappear and only the good dreams are left.” 

Ruiz-Coburn and his grandmother were among at least a thousand people who reveled in this year’s Ethnic Festival and World Languages Day, held last Saturday, May 2 on the grounds of Julian, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave. This year marked the event’s 35th anniversary. The event typically begins with an early-morning parade, after which the crowd fans out to shop from vendors such as Antonio; listen to students perform songs steeped in their respective cultures; and enjoy an array of culinary delights. 

The annual festival is hosted by the district’s Multicultural Center, which was founded more than 30 years ago “by a group of dedicated District 97 teachers and administrators who recognized that respect for diversity and the concepts of ‘human dignity and cultural pluralism’ were important values in the Village of Oak Park, and should be reflected in our schools,” according to a festival guide.

At this year’s festival, the center — both its presence and its potential absence — loomed over revelry like a rain cloud. Lynn Allen, the center’s coordinator, and her small army of volunteers are in the middle of an uncertain transition. After next year, the center will likely have to move to make way for classrooms to accommodate Julian’s growing student population, but so far there is no place available to which it can move.

The center is currently located in a room on Julian’s second floor, but it serves all students in the district. According to Allen, the room features approximately 18,000 artifacts from almost every region of the world — from an ancient Egyptian mummy to African fertility goddesses. 

The artifacts are often donated from institutions such as the Field Museum and from individuals looking for safe, reliable homes for things they may no longer need, but that nonetheless have significant cultural value. On Saturday, some of those cultural gems were boxed away as Allen and her team gradually prepare for the move.

Joie Pierce, a 40-year resident of Oak Park, has been volunteering with the center for at least 10 years. All four of her children graduated from Julian — back when it was the K-8 Hawthorne School. 

“We were worried about having to move because of what’s happening with the district,” said Pierce, adding that she’s going to start circulating petitions among residents to help drum up support and awareness for the center. 

The D97 board had, at one point, contemplated relocating the center in its new administration building, for which construction bids could go out by June of this year. However, due to the number of students who would be trafficking in and out of the space, the building would have to be technically categorized as a school, which can’t get built without a referendum.

Allen said she hasn’t heard much from the district regarding other possible sites, but that hasn’t stopped her from imagining a few of her own.

She noted that the village of Oak Park included a multicultural museum in its strategic plan approved last year. This would be a logical starting point for discussions of the center’s future, Allen said. 

“If the multicultural center is going to have to close, it seems to me that maybe now is the time [to explore a village-wide multicultural museum],” she said. “It shouldn’t be down the road because we have such a large collection and no place to put it. If they close the center, that stuff is going to get lost and tucked away somewhere. People are going to forget about it.” 

Allen, who has been the center’s coordinator since 2003, said she would like to see the center opened to the wider Oak Park community.

“I would like to see a cultural center that belongs both to the district and the village and that has space for language classes … ethnic dance classes … international cooking classes,” she said. “I’d like it to be a go-to place that celebrates everybody.”

“I don’t know. I’m working on my little pipe dream,” she said, her quiet laughter gently reverberating through the cafeteria and into the makeshift bazaar hall space, where Antonio’s dreamcatcher was displayed — just a few hundred feet away.  


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