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Holladay Journal

Incorporating culture into language classes during Hispanic Heritage Month

Oct 01, 2022 07:23PM ● By Heather Lawrence

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Thousands of Granite School District students take Spanish classes every year. For many, it’s their first insight into not just the language but also the culture of Spanish-speaking countries. Hispanic Heritage Month in September and October gives teachers an opportunity to show their students how culture and language are entwined.

“We don’t tell our teachers to implement culture in their classes, but when you understand culture, your interest in the language grows. Cultural immersion through food, music, dance and art increase interest,” said Noemí Hernández-Balcázar.

Hernández-Balcázar is a Fine Arts Specialist in Curriculum and Instruction in Granite School District. She is also a working local artist with close ties to Mexico.

“In Mexico people appreciate culture a lot. Art is accessible because on Sundays the museums are free, so that’s what people do. We have a rich tradition of film, art — everything,” Hernández-Balcázar said.

Hispanic Heritage Month became an official U.S. holiday in 1968. It begins Sept. 15 because that’s the day when five Latin American countries celebrate their independence. During the month, Hernández-Balcázar runs several workshops and classes on Day of the Dead and other cultural celebrations.

At Olympus High, Spanish teacher (and native of Spain) Chantal Esquivias likes to include cultural discussions in class. In September, she dedicated a class period to discussing Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Esquivias shows the class a slide of the Kahlo painting “Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States.” She asks them to use it to answer the pregunta del día, or, question of the day.

“I went to the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City with my family once. I don’t remember a lot — I was about 10 years old,” said junior Will de la Garza during the class discussion.

de la Garza has Hispanic heritage through his dad’s family. He said his Spanish fluency used to be much better when he was younger and the family traveled through Mexico often.

“I’ve taken Spanish in school for two years, but I actually spoke it when I was younger,” de la Garza said.

“When my dad’s family came to the U.S. from Mexico, they dropped a lot of their cultural practices — it was lost because of prejudice. But I am proud of it. I love celebrating the differences. I love that I have a last name that’s different,” de la Garza said.  

de la Garza said that his Spanish comes in handy when he’s out in the community and meets someone who speaks Spanish and not English. It happens sometimes while he’s at work at The King’s English bookshop.   

“Making an effort to speak Spanish helps people feel more comfortable,” de la Garza said.

Brock Perreca is also in Esquivias’s class. He’s a senior who’s taken Spanish off and on since eighth grade.

“I really like having a native speaker for a teacher. (Esquivias) teaches us about culture, differences in accents and funny jokes from other countries. If I wasn’t in this class, I’d have no idea about other traditions and holidays,” Perreca said.

He said Hispanic Heritage Month is a good idea because learning about other people’s differences makes you more well-rounded.

“I think it’s important to have knowledge of what other cultures are out there, especially if you’ve only lived in one place most of your life. It makes you a more understanding person, which is good because our world is so connected,” Perreca said.  

Hernández-Balcázar agrees, but adds that if people were more open to accepting other cultures as “normal” instead of “other,” we might not have to have specific dates to celebrate them — they’d be part of our everyday lives.

“When you are Hispanic, you are Hispanic every day. This celebration has a lot to do with representation. Multicultural art education is important: if students don’t see themselves represented in art, they don’t own the creative process or the arts in general,” Hernández-Balcázar said.

Hernández-Balcázar grew up in Mexico and now lives in Utah and works with many different cultures in the art and education worlds. Her experiences have informed her idea of what is “beautiful” or worthy to be called art.

“The things I grew up with, the things that give me comfort and what I teach to my children, are part of my everyday life. Hispanic culture has so much to offer, and Hispanic Heritage Month gives us an opportunity for multicultural education,” Hernández-Balcázar said. “We study these things because they are important, they deserve respect and equal appreciation.”