State Fair's Ethnic Village Getting Rebrand

Aug 16, 2019

Just inside the main gate of the Illinois State Fair sits a cluster of white booths around a gazebo. At the entrances, signs read “Ethnic Village.” For nearly 40 years, fair-goers have found food from around the world as well as music and other performances. But this is the last year it will have that name.

Governor J.B. Pritzker recently approved legislation to rename it the “Village of Cultures,” and the signs will change for next year’s fair.

Fifteen food vendors, a wine booth and two beer sellers surround a gazebo stage offering live music from noon until 9 p.m.

Hanouf Alghamdi runs the “Middle Eastern” stand with her husband. It’s their first year as vendors.

“I help people decide what to order,” she said. “Because some people don’t know the Middle Eastern food, so we help them decide which one is good for them.”

They offer chicken and beef shawarma, hummus and falafel. Alghambi said chicken shawarma is usually the most popular.

Across the yard, Dylan Lipski and Ashley Weir sat on benches in front of the gazebo, watching an acapella group.

“It seems like our grandparents named it [Ethnic Village], and we stuck with it,” Lipski, 19, said.

It’s his first time at the fair, and he said he can understand why newcomers to the fair might be put off by the name.

“When they come to a section and the first thing they see is Ethnic Village – it seems little backwards,” he said.

The Sky Glide at the Illinois State Fair passes over the Ethnic Village, soon to be renamed the Village of Cultures.
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois

Weir, who grew up in Springfield, said she prefers the new name. “You’re surrounded by the food and music, so culture sounds like a good word to use,” she said. “It still describes the area of the fair in a good way.”

The feeling that “ethnic” is an outdated descriptor is backed by research. Krishnendu Ray, head of the Department of Food and Nutrition Studies at New York University, explores how food and food culture changes as people migrate.

He said like all words, “ethnic” has a life cycle.

“It was born in the United States in the 1950s to mark a sort of cultural difference from the Anglo-Protestant, kind of white mainstream,” he said.

And if words have life cycles, Ray said ethnic is dying. It’s similar to what happened with the word “oriental.” He said as our understanding and experience with other cultures changes, so do the words we use.

“It's a symptom of democratization of American culture,” Ray said. “Because now we can no longer use this big overwhelming category — ethnic — which is anything different from, anything a little spicy.”

He said his research shows media, particularly on the east and west coasts, began phasing the word out in 2010.

State Rep. Theresa Mah, Democrat from Chicago, sponsored the bill to rename Ethnic Village. She said she got the idea from a constituent.

“The name sort of suggests it’s a segregated spot; that it’s a token gesture — apart from the larger state fair,” she said.

The bill got overwhelming support in the Illinois General Assembly, with one representative — State Rep. Allen Skillicorn, a conservative Republican from East Dundee — voting against it.

Mah said the new name — “Village of Cultures” — sounds more inclusive.

“It suggests that we’re trying to highlight and showcase the diversity of cultures that are a part of Illinois and not separate,” she said.

Still, not everyone agrees there’s a need for change.

Dana Pratt, of De Land Illinois, west of Champaign, waited for her lunch from the Filipino stand. She came that day to see the horses.

She said she doesn’t find ethnic offensive and thinks there’s a generational difference in how people think about it.

“Sometimes I think we’re getting very picky about what words we are saying and are not saying are offensive,” she said.

Filia Tzortzis runs the Greek, Filipino and Mediterranean stands.
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois

Meanwhile, at the Greek booth, Filia Tzortzis said she doesn’t think the change will make much of a difference.

“Even if you change the name - people will call it the Ethnic Village,” she said. “It’s been like that for 40 years.”

Tzortzis runs the Greek, Filipino and Mediterranean stands. She also coordinated the events and vendors for the village for more than 15 years and was on the commission that started the area of the fair in 1981. What she wants is more cultural activities like dances and musical performances.

She wants to see the fair hire a coordinator specifically for that area of the fair next year. By that time, the signs for “Ethnic Village” will likely be changed.

“Changes is good, and we hope to continue another 40 years,” she said.