At HSC, Multicultural Night Travels The World From Water Street

Lucy Gellman | May 23rd, 2024

At HSC, Multicultural Night Travels The World From Water Street

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  High School in the Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  Wooster Square

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Top: Jeremy Banks and Mari Rodriguez. Bottom: Students perform with Japanese language teacher Rebecca Sipper. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Jeremy Banks and Mari Rodriguez stood in a pool of bright light, ready to transform a high school cafeteria into a stage. Above them, the flags of Nicaragua, Honduras and Colombia burst into color. A drumbeat came from a speaker, and Rodriguez stepped forward, her hands on her skirt. She closed her eyes and channeled a childhood in San Juan, where she learned about bomba for the first time. 

Wednesday night, bomba y plena joined K-Pop, bachata and cumbia, Tankō Bushi, Neapolitan and Israeli poetry and a tightly edited version of Moana at High School in the Community’s (HSC) fifth annual “Multicultural Night,” held in the school’s bright first-floor cafeteria. As peers, staff and parents cheered them on, students built international bridges, shining a light on both their own backgrounds and the traditions they’ve learned about at HSC.

The event is the work of the Multicultural “ProCo” or production company, a term that HSC students and faculty use for a student club. For the first time this year, students chose to spotlight HSC’s nascent Japanese language program, which this June will send students to Japan for the first time.  

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ProCo advisor Marlin Rivera.

“It [Multicultural Night] has grown a lot,” said ProCo advisor Marlin Rivera, a Spanish teacher at HSC who has led the group for over half a decade. “It’s a big community—really, it’s a whole island compared to other years. The kids are getting together and really helping each other.” 

The night, which travels the globe without ever leaving Water Street, has been nearly a year in the making. Last year, the ProCo lost several of its most engaged members when HSC graduated the class of 2023. When students reconvened in the fall, Rivera asked them to choose a theme for the event, as well as a short piece of theater that could close it out.

That’s where senior Sarah Harper picked up the narrative. In years past, plays have included an original telenovela and excerpts from Disney’s Encanto. When she joined the group, Harper pivoted to Polynesia, using the story of Moana to anchor the show. “We wanted to mix it up and branch out more,” she said. 

While neither she nor her fellow ProCo members are Polynesian—she is Mexican and Israeli, with peers who are Puerto Rican, Dominican, Tlaxcaltec, Black, and Cherokee—all of them found Moana’s story of self-discovery surprisingly relatable. Jordan McDaniel, a senior who ultimately joined the show as Moana’s father Tui, said the movie has become one of his favorites. 

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Katie Harper, Jordan McDaniel, and Sarah Harper. 

“She’s very brave and she goes on this journey,” Harper said. “She goes against what her parents want for her and she finds herself.”

As Harper edited a two-hour movie down to a 20-minute play, other acts emerged from the woodwork. Inspired by the second and third generation of South Korean K-Pop artists—performers like BoA, Blackpink and BTS—junior Ty’nique Turner and senior Daniomar Gonzalez choreographed dances, practicing at ProCo meetings each Wednesday and after school. 

Rodriguez, who grew up in San Juan until she was 10, opted to honor her Puerto Rican heritage with a crash course in bomba and plena, enlisting the help of Banks when she needed a partner for the dance. Sophomore Dulce Maria Sartillo, whose parents hail from Tlaxcala, learned about the history of bachata and cumbia, growing her cultural footprint after she presented on Tlaxcalan Carnaval last year. 

And Harper, who is a Hebrew teacher at Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven, chose to perform the “Hatikvah,” a nineteenth-century Romantic poem that became the Israeli national anthem. “Even though it’s a controversial time, I want to show that I’m still proud of where my mom is from,” she said.

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Top: The audience, including Building Leader (that's HSC speak for Principal) Cari Strand. Bottom: Senior Daniomar Gonzalez.

As students rehearsed, Rivera reminded them of the ProCo’s shared goals: to incorporate the history, values, and beliefs of other cultures; to celebrate and respect diversity; and to provide an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning in the name of equity and social justice. In part, it was those goals that led students to fold in a performance of Tankō Bushi, a traditional folk dance about coal mining from Hokkaido, with Japanese teacher Rebecca Sipper. 

Wednesday, that vision unfolded in multiple languages, with dance, music and movement often taking the place of words. As students slipped into costume and made last-minute tweaks to their routines, the cafeteria buzzed with conversation, reggaeton floating through the building’s open doors. 

At one table, English teacher MarcAnthony Solli rehearsed Arturo Trusiano’s “Rusella ‘e Maggio,” a poem that his late grandfather used to love. 

“I thought, ‘Let me come up with a poem that my grandfather translated to me,’” he later said, explaining that the poem is written in Neapolitan Italian, rather than the more common Florentine Italian. “There’s strength in our diversity and in our cultures.”

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Ty'nique Turner. “I feel like you have to do it right—you can’t be appropriating it,” she said after performing. 

That strength shone from the first performance to the last. As she took the floor early in the evening, Turner covered her mouth with her hands, scrunching her shoulders to shake out her pre-routine jitters. Across the room, classmates’ phones already hovered halfway in the air, ready to start recording. As she looked up at the crowd, feet pedaling in place, a few classmates cheered preemptively. 

It did the trick: (G)I-dle’s “Wife” pumped over a speaker, and her body became a live wire. She extended her arms to their full wingspan, then pulled them into her body just as she’d watched the artist do a few dozen times. She crossed her arms over her chest and nodded to the beat. With each move, she channeled a love for K-Pop that she’s had since the sixth grade, and a respect for its performers and culture that she wants to pass on to her classmates. 

“I feel like you have to do it right—you can’t be appropriating it,” she said later, as she surveyed a post-show meal of empanadas, plantains, baked chicken and yellow rice. She took a container of tres leches cake and placed it on a table. “You have to understand where it’s coming from and where it started.”

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It set the tone for an evening dedicated to cultural discovery. As they moved to a hammering, persistent drumbeat. Rodriguez and Bates became storytellers, two members of a couple coming apart at the seams. 

Bates gestured as if to say they had no money—palms pressed together, one sliding on top of the other—and the audience laughed. Rodriguez lifted a long, angular wooden stick, rage dancing across her face, and classmates began to clap in time with her. When she began to march him around the room, a surprised cry of “Oh!” went up from a table at the back of the room. 

Other performances moved the room to total silence. When Harper stepped in front of the mic in a blue-and-white floral dress, a listener could have heard a pin drop. Steadying herself as she performed “Hatikvah,” itself a poem written in diaspora, she let the words be an offering. In the lyrics, a listener could hear a kind of longing—for normalcy, for peace, for hope in the region.

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She wasn’t sure what to expect from her peers, she later said; she’s seen how divided people have become on Israel since October 7. But as the last note rang out, hanging for a moment in the air, the cafeteria erupted in applause and cheers, a few cries of “go Sarah!” popping up around the room’s periphery.  Minutes later, when she reemerged dressed in green as Te Fiti, she was still flushed and beaming.  

Following the performance, several students said they valued the evening for its ability to spark cross-cultural dialogue in both their families and their friend groups. Sartillo, whose parents migrated to New Haven from Tlaxcala, Mexico in the early 2000s, praised the ProCo as an opportunity to both teach her peers about her culture and learn from them at the same time.

At home, “my parents keep me very connected to my roots,” she said. Her mom cooks dishes from Tlaxcala, including a pozole that she brings out only on Christmas and her daughter’s birthday. Her dad teaches her traditional dances. So when she had the chance to share that with her peers, she was thrilled. 

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Dulce Sartillo.

“I like all cultures because they’re unique in their own ways,” she continued. After repping Tlaxcala last year, bachata and cumbia let her grow her understanding of dance and diaspora. “It’s really special to experience other cultures.” 

As he walked around the room dressed as Moana’s father, Chief Tui, McDaniel echoed that feeling. In the fall, he plans to head to Southern Connecticut State University—and feels like the ProCo has given him a better sense of who he is. 

“Before coming here, I didn't really explore my culture,” he said afterwards, as students tucked into cannoli and iced, powder-colored anise cookies. “I wasn't really exposed to these kinds of environments. This made me comfortable to express myself.”