Menlo Park Storytelling Festival artists fight discrimination

It is 6 p.m. on Oct. 23 — parents off from work and children out of school sat in a semicircle at Menlo Park Library. They listened avidly to the storyteller Roopa Mohan, who shared the story of Ganesha, a Hindu god with an elephant head, at the eighth annual Menlo Park Storytelling Festival.

Every year, Menlo Park Library invites storytellers from different backgrounds to celebrate storytelling with the local community throughout October and November. The festival champions traditional storytelling as an art form that not only allows the expansion of oral history but also gives listeners’ unique imaginative liberties. 

Mohan lived in India for 20 years before moving to the United States. Trained at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, she tells personal narrative, folktale, myth and tall tales related to food and culture. 

“As we listen to stories, we start telling our stories. We start sharing stories about family, about our heritage, about all kinds of things,” Mohan said. “When children experience this, it really broadens their world and it brings people closer.”

When hate crimes toward Asian Americans spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mohan joined other Asian American storytellers to start the Asian American Storytopia project for elementary school children, families and others. She also sits on the board of the Storytelling Association of California, which brings storytelling to underserved schools all over the state. 

“We came up with a plan to educate children with stories from all different Asian countries, so that people will embrace each other,” Mohan said. “I think it will expel racism and all those negative feelings that we see in our society.”

The festival gathered storytellers from both in and outside of California. At the final event on Friday, the audience enjoyed stories from performers based in Texas, Australia, South Korea and elsewhere through Zoom.

A week following Mohan’s performance, children and parents returned to hear from Olga Loya on Oct. 30. Loya invited the audience to take a fresh, personal look at life and death with a story about Día de los Muertos (day of the dead), along with family stories and other Latin American folk tales. 

Loya’s stories seek to help people overcome emotional and cultural boundaries. Instead of believing in what society says what one is capable of achieving, she encourages the audience to break stereotypes and be the author of their own story. 

When Loya was going to school, she was told that she could not go to college because of her family’s financial status. She did not let those words defeat her. Now, she writes her own story to inspire those in a position similar to the one she was once in. 

“People get discouraged when they have stuff like that happen,” Loya said. “I think it’s really important to hear somebody who has come through the other side talk about it. 

“Dancing through La Via” is one of Loya’s stories. It describes growing up in east Los Angeles, where substance abuse and gang violence are prevalent. 

“People need to tell more stories of surviving that,” Loya said. 

Tina Henson, the last in-person storyteller, regaled the audience with stories from a variety of Native traditions. A cloth adorned with drawings of bears, harvest and other symbols hung next to her while she spoke. Following the story, Henson also demonstrated a powwow dance and encouraged her audience to join one of the largest powwows in Northern California at Stanford next year. 

To Henson, storytelling means keeping her traditions alive and “reminding students that Native Americans aren’t just a part of history.”

“We’re very resilient. We’ve done what we had to still be here to be able to share our culture,” Henson said.

Henson attributed one source of inspiration for her storytelling to John Weaver, Menlo Park Library’s senior program assistant. Weaver was her librarian when she grew up in Livermore, and Henson remembered Weaver was always telling stories at the library. Part of Weaver’s mission was to assist in the library programs where children were encouraged to reach the goal of reading one hundred books.

“He made it so exciting and so fun,” Henson said.

At the Menlo Park Storytelling Festival, storytellers encouraged the young audience to pass stories of different cultures onto future generations.