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'Nuestra America' tells Latino story

Fourth-year College student Carolina Espinal had a lot of experience growing up as what she calls a "hyphen." A Latino American of Dominican, Nicaraguan and Mexican heritage, Espinal said she has grown up between cultures.

Espinal and seven other presenters shared their experiences at "Nuestra America/Our America," a diversity-promoting event Espinal helped organize.

Over 200 students and faculty had the opportunity to hear presenters' stories and experience several facets of Latino culture during the program, held at Minor Hall Nov. 10.

At the event, "I dealt with how living between these different cultures and races influenced my way of thinking, my ideas, my emotions, my politics, my behavior," Espinal said.

According to Asst. Dean of Students Pablo Davis, who also helped organize the event, the students in charge of coordinating the evening wanted to show the rich diversity among different Latin-American cultures by presenting four elements of culture: personal accounts, photographs, food and music.

"Latino culture is not just part of the rainbow of American culture but is an entire rainbow in and of itself," Davis said.

Most of the evening consisted of testimonios, or personal stories. Latin-American students and faculty explained what it was like growing up Latino and how it impacted their lives. Program organizers said they did not want a presentation of speeches or reports but rather personalized story telling.

"We didn't want the vision of Latino culture to be cute and quaint, but rather we wanted it to be alive," Davis said. "Those involved wanted to give a piece of themselves and make this a personal event."

Assoc. History Prof. Tico Braun decided to share small excerpts from his autobiographical essay entitled "Betwixt." Braun focused on the confusion associated with growing up in Bogota, Colombia, and then having to learn to adjust to American culture later in life. While he offered humorous anecdotes regarding cultural differences in relationships between males and females, such as different social expectations concerning flirting, Braun also wanted to show some of the similarities between the two cultures.

"I wanted to share things about connections and things that bring us together rather than separations," Braun said.

The next portion of the program consisted of a slide presentation of photographs of Latino students. The slides presented images of Latin-American students as children growing up in America and photographs of international students spending time in their native lands.

"The aim was to capture U.Va.'s Latin-American students in a setting outside of U.Va.," Espinal said.

By showing a wide range of images, Davis said the presenters managed to show the diversity within the Latin-American heritage.

"We wanted to show the different levels of Latin-American culture that students here are connected to," he said.

Following the first half of the program, the audience sampled Latin-American dishes, while a wide range of Latino music entertained them in the Minor Hall lobby.

While Nuestra America enjoyed a large audience, the event required extensive planning to make it a success. Espinal said she approached Davis last spring with her ideas for developing a program to celebrate Latin-American heritage at the University. Through a series of discussions between Davis, Espinal and three other student organizers, including fourth-year College student Sofia Hetch, third-year Commerce student Sylvana Gonzalez and first-year College student Maria Teresa Armijos, plans were made for the event to be held during the fall semester.

"I felt that there was a need for a medium for Latino students of various backgrounds to share their experiences with themselves and the larger community," Espinal said.

Early in the semester, the event's organizers began to publicize the event, sending a call out to anyone interested to submit their ideas for elements to include in the program, as well as an open invitation to Latin-American students and faculty to present their personal accounts. While no restrictions were placed on what could be included in the testimonios, Davis said the organizers were looking for presenters to share something personally meaningful to them.

"The nicest part of the evening was being able to share real-life experiences," said Catalina Ocampo, third-year College student and president of La Sociedad Latina, who also shared a testimonio. "We heard from many different people, and I loved having a chance to hear what other people had to say."

While the presentation of Nuestra America may be over, organizers said an ongoing project with the event and plans for the program's future are just getting underway. The Nuestra America Organizing Committee said they are considering creating an exhibit to display highlights of the evening. Student organizers and Davis said they hope to include a videotape of the program, some of the photographs that were shared, compact disc recordings of the music and a collection of recipes for the food that was prepared.

Organizers also are working to make the Nuestra America program an annual tradition. While the organizers of the evening were pleased with the presentation, Espinal said she wants to see further improvements in the future by allowing the program to exhibit further Latino diversity.

"I hope they'll bring new perspectives, new stories and continue to provide the audience with personal testimonials," she said.

Davis said he felt this year's program accomplished the goal of "bringing Latin-American students closer together and allowing them to learn from each other, and then to giving something back to the community as a whole."

He said most importantly it portrayed Latin-American culture from a variety of perspectives, showing the rich diversity of the Latino population.

Nuestra America "was one of the single most gratifying experiences I've had in the past four years that I've been here," Espinal said. "The Latino community has made the progression of breaking from stereotypes and showing that we can't be pigeon-holed into a culture solely of salsa-dancing, taco-eating, macho men and weak women"