Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Removing the cultural mask

High school senior sells shirts for language education

Express Staff Writer

?Have a good life,? exclaims the Dia de los Muertos skull on a T-shirt designed by WRHS senior Dezi Peters. Peters is selling the shirts in support of pupils enrolled in the dual-immersion program at Bellevue Elementary School. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration that coincides with Halloween in honor of loved ones who have died. For many Wood River Valley schoolchildren, loved ones include those who have bridged cultures, particularly between English and Spanish speakers. Photo by Paulette Phlipot

A desire to promote tools for cultural understanding is the key to Dezi Peters' Wood River High School senior project. Peters is selling T-shirts she designed, with profits going to support Spanish and English education at Bellevue Elementary School.

"I noticed that at my school there is a big gap between English and Spanish speakers," Peters said.

She said she got the idea about making a T-shirt when she saw one for sale at the Hailey Farmers Market promoting cycling in the state with the logo "Ridaho."

Such extracurricular projects are a graduation requirement at Wood River High School, but Peters has discovered the cause of cross-cultural understanding is more than a project. It is also a passion.

"It is something that you want to do, but don't have time for," Peters said. "It makes you do it."

Peters said she is particularly aware of preconceptions people have of each other because she is half Mexican and speaks fluent Spanish but doesn't look Mexican because of her blond hair.

"My mom is 100 percent Mexican," she said.

Peters' heritage and appearance give her an inadvertent cover, which has caused her to overhear comments people make about others when they are in familiar company. She said she is reminded of how people carry their preconceptions when she overhears some saying things about her in Spanish when she is walking down the hallway at school, not realizing that she may understand them. On the flip side, she said, some people will say things in English to generalize about Spanish speakers in Peters' presence because they don't realize she is also part Mexican.

"There are always stereotypes in high school," Peters said.

She said that although she didn't grow up speaking Spanish, she learned the language as a student. When she was growing up, some Spanish expressions were regularly directed her way.

"The stuff I remember most are commands—"Siéntate" (sit down)—I can still hear my mother and my grandmother saying that."

Peters focuses on dual-immersion in elementary school because she said she believes language is the key to better understanding, and that learning foreign languages at a young age is beneficial to bridging cultural gaps over a lifetime.

Peters said that when she went out with her roommate, who spoke very little Spanish, during a Spanish immersion program in Costa Rica over the summer, people would address the roommate before Peters because the roommate appeared to be a Spanish speaker.

"No one would guess that I was the one who spoke more Spanish," Peters said. "It was a step back for them."

For Peters, the most important goal of her project is that people learn to better appreciate the core values of others.

"People would understand the sense of love that Mexicans have if more people could understand Spanish," she said. "I know first hand—it's an amazing feeling being able to communicate with people in another language."

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