Students from select schools came home on Wednesday, put on their Sunday best and came out to Massanutten Regional Library to honor diversity.
“It’s fun to be bilingual because I can speak to double the amount of people and do double the things,” said Sawyer Huff, a third grader at Bluestone Elementary School.
Students from Wilbur Pence Middle School, Waterman Elementary School and Bluestone presented spoken narratives on what it means and what they enjoy about being bilingual at the multicultural event.
Harrisonburg City Public Schools has incorporated an initiative called “The World Is Our Classroom” into the educational curriculum this year. Suzanne Miller, an HCPS administrator, said teaching students to recognize educational value and opportunities outside of textbooks is the future.
“We recognize that in daily instruction, students are learning all day long to read, to write, to apply their higher learning thinking skills. But the world is really outside their door. It’s in the community members that are here with us this evening,” Miller said. “We’re not just working on English skills. We’re recognizing that students are learning multiple languages, and we celebrate the diversity that comes with that.”
Meg Medina, a New York Times best-selling author and winner of the 2019 John Newbery Medal, writes children and young adult books with Hispanic characters living in the United States. Medina presented a lecture on what growing up as a Cuban immigrant in New York was like and what inspires her writing.
“I lived like a lot of the kids who just spoke. At home, completamente en Espanol: frijoles, arroz blanco, empanadas, lucha libre, el cafecito, la vecina. That was my life after school, and during the day: Twinkies and pizza and my friends ... all those things were inside of me,” Medina said.
The Virginia Center for the Book sponsored Medina’s visit to Harrisonburg as part of the statewide initiative called Changing the Narrative. Virginia Humanities received a grant last year from W.K. Kellogg Foundation as part of its Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation project to organize events that share marginalized voices with children around six Virginia communities, including Harrisonburg.
Miranda Bennett, assistant editor for Encyclopedia Virginia, works with Virginia Humanities on the Changing the Narrative project. She previously worked with Smithland Elementary School teacher Leatrice Woods to teach third graders about local African American history.
“One of the ideas behind Changing the Narrative is to create these safe spaces where people can tell their own stories and then hear the stories back from other people and create that kind of inclusive space and opportunity for storytelling,” Bennett said. “Underrepresented in the storytelling from children’s books to the way we teach history in schools in Virginia and underrepresented in publishing, but also in our formal education.”
According to the national census, 20% of Harrisonburg’s population is Latino, but Latino is an umbrella term that does not capture the various unique cultures.
One concept that is traditionally Cuban is “clave,” a beat that Medina said is sacred and remains unchanged in Cuban music. Medina demonstrated the clapping rhythm and encouraged the crowd to join in. Quickly, the room filled with the synchronized rhythm.
Medina said everyone has this beat within them, and to listen to one’s clave is to be true to oneself.
“I think everybody needs something inside of themselves that doesn’t change. Something that guides you from the time you’re young to the time you die,” she said. “A beat that is not shaping a thing inside you that is sacred. And so my clave is family and culture and where those things intersect.”
Danny Ayala, a 10-year-old from Waterman, shared his clave with the audience under the name DJ Danny with a rap he wrote about being Honduran in the United States.
“Puedo hablar con diferente personas. Puedo hablar mas de dos idiomas. Me gusta ser mulitcultural porque me ayudara profesional,” Ayala said.
His rap translates to, “I can talk to different people. I can speak more than two languages. I like being multicultural because it helps me professionally.”
Kids crafted paper parrots and families enjoyed plates of rice, beans and plantains during the night to fully immerse themselves in the multicultural event.
Medina said one thing is the same across cultures.
“There are so many ways that we love each other that are exactly the same in English y en Espanol,” Medina said.