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Protesters seek dialogue after controversial pumpkin display

Submitted photo
This display at the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival drew protesters before the child who made it removed it sometime Saturday evening.
Submitted photo This display at the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival drew protesters before the child who made it removed it sometime Saturday evening.

SYCAMORE – A group of protesters who objected to a child's award-winning display at the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival over the weekend hope volunteer festival organizers can learn something from the controversy.

The satirical entry into the Sycamore Lions Club Pumpkin Decorating Contest's "TV, Nursery Rhyme, News or Current Events" category angered some with it's portrayal of mustachioed, sombrero-wearing "illegal gourds."

The display featured a pumpkin Donald Trump in front of a brick wall. The wall had a sign that said "Made in China." Trump was depicted as saying "I will build a great wall ... to keep out the illegal Gourds." Six gourds were in front of the wall and on top of it, and a piñata was perched on the wall next to one of them.

A group of amateur judges awarded the entry third place in its category for the 12- to 17-year-old age group, which further upset protesters. A handful of people with signs protested during the festival. One sign read "Don't reward hate."

Jocelyn Santana, of DeKalb, said many people were bothered by the stereotypical portrayal of Hispanic immigrants, regardless of the intent of the boy who made it.

"The depiction of the culture was offensive," Santana said. "It impacts the growing Latino population in Sycamore and DeKalb."

Even worse, she said, was that the display received an award.

"The stereotypical message was validated by the award," Santana said. "That was the larger issue. That's what we were protesting."

The display was eventually removed sometime Saturday after talks that included Sycamore Police Chief Glenn Theriault, the protesters, the boy and his family, said Sycamore Lion Ed Kuhn, who helps oversee the pumpkin decorating contest that's a central part of the five-day festival.

Kuhn said Theriault approached the Lions about the possibility of the family removing the display. The Sycamore Lions Club typically doesn't allow for removal of a display until after the festival, but decided not to object if the boy and his family wanted to take it down themselves. And that's apparently what happened. Kuhn said the pumpkin was gone by Sunday morning, although a pile of bricks used in the display remained.

While the Lions Club "reserves the right to remove the any display or sign that is deemed inappropriate for a family-oriented event," Kuhn said display wasn't out of bounds, especially for the "News or Current Events" category.

"It's been on TV for months," Kuhn said. "I thought the entry was creative."

Further, he said the display met all the criteria to win an award.

"This is a current event. It was done with a sense of humor. We have amateur artists who judge the contest. This was clearly a creative entry. It met all of those criteria."

He noted that last year there was a Confederate flag pumpkin on display that also generated some controversy.

Santana said that regardless of the creator's intentions, the impact of the display was offensive to her and others.

Santana said her four children immediately recognized the stereotyping and were upset. She said other children who visited the festival also saw it.

Some people who stopped to talk to her and other protesters understood their objections, but not all of them. She said that if the gourds had blank faces, rather than decorated with sombreros, mustaches and piñatas, the display would have been fine.

Santana praised the Sycamore police for how they handled the protest, which at its height consisted of several people standing near the display holding signs. Some visitors joined in.

She described the protest as an organic movement of like-minded people. She said they had a private discussion with the father of the boy who made the display.

"We did have a conversation with the family," she said. "It was a really great conversation."

Protesters never asked to have the display taken down, Santana said.

She said she hopes similar conversations occur within the the community to raise awareness and find out what lessons can be learned from this. She said she hoped to see changes in the future.

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