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A global spin

Through dances and essays, 136 foreign-born students share the ways they celebrate - or exercise moderation in - the winter season.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Ten-year-old Stefany Borjas raised her right hand and counted the beat for her classmates: "Uno, dos, tres ... uno, dos, tres ..."

The Colombian, Venezuelan and Puerto Rican children twirled in circles as they danced the Tambores Venezolanos. With fingertips resting lightly on their partners' shoulders and eyes locked, they moved to the left and to the right, back and forth across the tennis court at Mallard Pointe Apartments Sunday afternoon as they practiced the Gaita Zuliana.

They repeated the steps over and over. Their shadows lengthened as the afternoon wore on. They wanted everything to be perfect when they shared the traditional Venezuelan Christmas dances with fellow students at Rio Vista Elementary School, at 8131 Macoma Drive, on Monday morning.

The children are among 47 third- through fifth-graders in Barbara Rice's three English for Speakers of Other Languages classes. Along with students from 21 other countries, including China, Greece, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Romania, Egypt and Ukraine, they form a population of 136 foreign-born students at Rio Vista.

The Venezuelan dances are part of a monthlong sharing of holiday traditions organized by Mrs. Rice to give her students a chance to teach their classmates about their cultures while practicing language skills.

After encouraging them to tell her -- in English -- about the ways they celebrate their holidays, she asked them to put their thoughts on paper. They shared their essays with the rest of the school last week via closed-circuit television during morning announcements.

"It took courage for them to get up in front of everyone and read their essays," Mrs. Rice said. "Many of them are only beginning to learn English."

Anggie Rocco, a fourth-grader from Venezuela celebrating her first Christmas in the United States, wrote about the Santa Claus ornaments on her Christmas tree and the hallacas -- spicy corn flour tamales filled with meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves -- that her mother serves as part of a special Christmas Eve supper. Aco Karac, a fourth-grader from Serbia, wrote about the lights that decorate his house. Orysia Khakhaoula, a fourth-grader from Ukraine, wrote about her country's Christmas celebration on Dec. 19.

Mrs. Rice encouraged the students to be creative in telling their stories. In addition to writing essays, they drew pictures of their celebrations. Three third- and fourth-grade Bosnian-born children who moved to Germany, Aldin Bajric, Amer Skomorac and Adelisa Sisic, sang about sorcova, a caroling tradition. Nine-year-old Andrada Dan sang about caroling in her native Romania.

Mrs. Rice, who has been at Rio Vista since 1982, is teaching language arts to foreign-born students for the second year. She said the enthusiasm the children brought to their holiday assignment was overwhelming.

"They love being able to share their culture," she said. "They're very bright children, but it's very difficult for them, since most of their parents don't speak English."

Roxana Brockway, a bilingual assistant from Honduras who translates for the Spanish-speaking students, explained that most of their families came here for economic relief.

"They feel the United States is the best country in the world," she said. "They make a lot of sacrifices. They come here and start from the beginning when they don't speak the language."

William Vasquez left his drilling business in Colombia to bring his family, including 8-year-old Billy, to the United States. Vasquez now drives a taxi and takes English lessons at the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center in St. Petersburg.

Venezuelan Thais Fernandez, the mother of 10-year-old Ariana Fernandez, works a 12-hour shift on the assembly line at Jabil Circuit. She abandoned her English classes at Tomlinson because she couldn't spare the time for them. She's trying to learn on her own, though, according to Mrs. Brockway, and has managed to record an English message on her telephone answering machine.

During their in-class discussions, some of the children reported that they will celebrate Christmas according to their native customs. Nine-year-old Becky Feliciano's family will celebrate the holiday Puerto Rican style, opening gifts on Christmas Eve.

Jesus Pernia, 10, who is celebrating his second Christmas in the United States, said his family has added some American traditions to its Venezuelan customs. His Christmas tree will have lights this year, a departure from Venezuelan decorating style.

Yoser Pacheco, 10, is celebrating his fifth Christmas in this country. His family combines American and Venezuelan customs. Yoser is one of the students participating in the Venezuelan dances. He said he had to relearn the steps, since his parents no longer practice the Christmas afternoon tradition.

Not all of the American influences are welcomed in the foreign students' homes. Dijana Selec, one of two bilingual assistants for Rio Vista's 110 Bosnian children, said that at least 80 percent of them are Muslims and celebrate Ramadan. For them, the season is a time of contemplation and moderation.

"The kids hear about American customs and want to celebrate that way," she said. "They want presents, Santa Claus. The parents don't like them to hear about American customs."

Mrs. Rice said that some of the holiday sharing was heart-wrenching. When she asked the children what they missed most about being away from their homelands, many of them said they missed family members they left behind. Nine-year-old Vangelios Hristov said he missed his grandparents in Bulgaria. Jose Rosario, also 9, said he missed his 15- and 16-year-old sisters, who are still in Puerto Rico.

"There is so much that Americans take for granted," she said. "These kids are so appreciative of everything. What means the most to them are the things they do as a family, being together."

Dijana Selec, who came here two years ago from Germany, agrees.

"It's not about country, it's about family," she said. "That's what makes your country your country."

On Monday morning, Mrs. Rice and Mrs. Brockway smiled as the children performed the Tambores Venezolanos and the Gaita Zuliana. They danced them perfectly.

Festive sentiments in any language

Froehliche Weihnachten und ein gluckliches Neues Jahr.

Aldin Bajric, 8, Germany

* * *

Craciun Fericit.

Andrada Dan, 9, Romania

* * *

Sretam Bozic. Vesela Nova Godina.

Aco Karac, 9, Serbia

* * *

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo.

Ariana Fernandez, 10, Venezuela

* * *

Feliz Fiestas Navidenas.

Miguel Gomez, 9, Colombia

* * *

Veseloho Vam Rizdva i Shchastlyvoho Novoho Roku

Orysia Khakhaoula, 9, Ukraine

* * *

Cestitamo Bozic

Edita Kutlovci, 8, Yugoslavia

* * *

Joyeux Nol et Bonne Annee!

Ralph Jeancharles, 10, Haiti

* * *

Kala Christougenna Kieftihismenos O Kenourios Chronos

Bojkent Karaosmani, 9, and Jonida Karaosmani, 10, Greece

* * *

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo.

Edgar Allen, 12, Mexico

* * *

Vasel Koleda; Tchesti nova godina!

Vangelios Hristov, 9, Bulgaria

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