Story by Lexi Phillips and Jessica Griffin
Even in such a small town, Central Washington University is home to a multitude of cultures. From the recent week-long international festival to our study abroad program, it’s almost impossible not to be exposed to different heritages during your time here.
However, being away from family in a small town can make it difficult to uphold the traditions students have celebrated throughout their lives. PULSE spoke with students from different heritages to share their experiences and give a deeper look at what it means to celebrate your culture in college.
Home for the Holidays
Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
One of the most popular holidays celebrated within the Mexican culture is Día de Los Muertos, which is celebrated from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 and is used as a time of remembrance for ancestors and relatives who have passed away.
Sophomore Theatre Studies major Alex Aragon, who is from Mexican descent, says, “We’ll put pictures of our grandparents and family members who have past away on an altar, and it’s a very emotional time for all of us.”
Gerald Lemmon, a freshman English/language arts education major who is Latino, adds that he prefers to celebrate this holiday here at Central more than at home because of the rituals and cultural roots displayed during the holiday here on campus. He explains that a lot of the traditions seen here on campus aren’t present in his hometown, making it exciting to learn more about the holiday while experiencing it here. “I still think it’s important to understand where our heritage and culture comes from—the origins of who I am,” he says.
Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day)
Another popular holiday celebrated within Mexican culture is Día de Reyes which takes place on Jan. 6.
Anakaren Garcia, a PULSE contributor, explains some of the traditions, “[We] pretty much [bring together] close family, and there’s this big donut-looking bread and inside, there’s three baby Jesus’, like little toy ones. Whoever gets baby Jesus has to cook a meal for the family on Feb. 6.”
Aragon says, “It’s basically like Christmas all over again, and the kids will leave carrots for the camels. It’s something that’s pretty prominent.” However, she says she had been too busy this past year while at school and didn’t have enough money to celebrate the way she would at home, but says she still reaches out to her mom and grandmother on that day.
Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr
Ramadan, a Muslim tradition which occurs in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is meant to celebrate the Prophet’s discovery of the Quran. During Ramadan, Muslims will fast for 30 days between sunrise and sunset.
Ibrahim Alshabanat, a freshman electronic engineering technology major who is Saudi Arabian and Muslim, says participating in Ramadan here at Central is very hard for many Muslims.
“To fast over here is so long and so tiring. In Saudi Arabia, if we have Ramadan … we don’t have school, because it’s so tough for us,” he says, adding that having to study and be surrounded by students eating a drinking all day makes things much harder, paired with the fact that there are typically less hours between sunset and sunrise in Ellensburg than in Saudi Arabia.
Eid al-Fitr is a three-day holiday following Ramadan, which Alshabanat says is like Christmas. “We exchange gifts, we have a visiting between the families, we have a dinner and lunch with the other families … it’s amazing,” he says.
However, Alshabanat doesn’t always celebrate Eid al-Fitr while away from his family, either. “I don’t celebrate here a lot, except if there are Saudis close to me. We go to mosque in Spokane, and we pray over there and when we’re done, we say ‘Happy Eid al-Fitr’ or ‘Happy Eid,’” he says.
La Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe)
Senior Political Science Major Tanya Medina, who is Chicana, makes a point to visit family in Mexico to celebrate holidays as often as she can. The birthday of the Virgen de Guadelupe, who Medina says is regarded as the protector of Mexico, is on Dec. 12.
“[It] starts at five in the morning, so they’ll ring the bells in Mexico three times to signal that they are about to leave and that’s your wake up call to wake up and go meet at this designated place to walk to the church and then from there they’ll give you candles,” she explains. She goes on to say how they bring live music to the celebration as well as hot drinks and fireworks to end the day.
Garcia also adds, “[W]e sing the Mananitas—basically just singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. [It’s] her day to celebrate.”
In the U.S., Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. Within Mexican culture, however, Mother’s Day is celebrated on May 10 and tends to carry a little more significance than it does in the states.
Carlos Murillo, a senior accounting major who identifies as Mexican, says, “That’s the big one for me. Mainly I do it for my mom, just because that’s her special day for her personally, so I’ll still partake in that one.”
Murillo adds that the tradition of regarding family as highly important is something he holds dear and hopes to one day pass on to his family.
Because New Year’s is an international holiday, cultures all over the world have their own unique traditions to ring in a New Year. Chinese New Year, however, isn’t celebrated until after Jan. 1, and the day varies each year. This year, it will take place on Feb. 16.
“You’re supposed to eat noodles for good luck in the next year. There’s a traditional dish [gau] … that you’re supposed to eat on Chinese New Year,” explains Jack Collier, a junior film major who is half-Chinese. “I’ve noticed even in recent years, we’ve stopped celebrating like we used to, partly because gau is apparently a bitch to make, so my grandmother says.”
Collier mentions that being away from family makes it a little harder to celebrate, though he still tries to talk to his family on holidays.
Jinho An, a senior psychology major who is Korean, explains that Korean New Year’s traditions include eating heavier rice cakes made from a salty mix. An says he is still able to celebrate while at college, and even goes to Korea each year around this time.
Like New Year’s, Christmas is also an international holiday, with each culture celebrating in their own unique way. In Mexico, Dec. 24 is usually when families celebrate and share a big meal together.
Across the world, however, in Germany, there is an extra day that is celebrated before Dec. 25. Samantha DuPras, a sophomore biology major who is German-American, explains, “On Dec. 6, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day and that’s a tradition we’ve always kept where you just put the boot outside of your house and St. Nicholas comes by and gives you fruit and nuts, which is really funny.”
DuPras, who grew up in Germany and moved to the U.S. around the time she was 10, also mentions the season of Fasching, a time in February where celebrations continue throughout the communities.
“[It’s] very big in Germany and we don’t celebrate it a lot here, just because it’s a ... community-type celebration, but we do try to take notice of it and try to talk to our friends in Germany,” she says.
Aside from holidays, of course, different cultures come with different traditions.
For Garcia, a big tradition in her family is Quinceañeras, which Garcia says is “like a Sweet 16, but for 15-year-olds.” This traditionally includes the birthday girl wearing a pink ballgown and lots of dancing.
Additionally, Garcia’s family does baptisms, First Communions and Confirmation, which are more involved within the Catholic side of her culture. “That’s more towards the church aspect of it, but then we do the parties,” explains Garcia. “For the baptisms, we throw money at kids as a party favor, and then we give out these little things called recuerdos, [which is sort of like] a little gift of [remembrance] for the day to hand out to your guests.”
For An, Jesa is a prominent tradition in Korean culture. Jesa is similar to Día de Los Muertos in that it serves as a memorial for one’s ancestors. Instead of occurring on one particular day, however, it occurs on the anniversary of the particular ancestor’s death.
“We go and sacrifice some of our food—apples and stuff like that—to some of our ancestors,” says An. “We do that every year with all the family—most of our extended family meets up and we pay our respects to past family.” However, An says he hasn’t been able to participate this tradition while he is here at Central.
In Native American culture, celebration often shows itself in powwows. “That’s taking pride in your culture. It’s one of those things where if you’re going with a friend, even if you’re not from the same tribe, you guys are celebrating that you’re both indigenous,” explains Junior Anthropology Major LeAnna Chard, who is Native American.
However, Chard says she doesn’t follow indigenous beliefs. Because of this, she doesn’t participate in many other Native traditions. “We do harvest,” she says, referring to the event in which Natives eat a big dinner made up of the traditional food of that season, “which I try to celebrate. … But it’s harder to do when you’re not with that group; it’s harder to celebrate alone.”
Chard adds that she is minoring in American Indian Studies, which is a way for her to keep in touch with the Native side of her culture and learn more about different indigenous tribes.
Traditions aren’t always big events, though: For Medina and An, food is a significant part of keeping in touch with their cultures. An and his family always eat Korean food, while Medina eats carne asada with her family every weekend during the summer, which is one way they keep close.
In Collier’s case, visiting his kung-fu school as frequently as possible is one way in which he stays in touch with his Chinese culture. “It’s not necessarily a tradition, but it’s pretty much the closest thing I have to my heritage. The master of the school is Chinese, [and] he still can barely speak a lot of English,” he says.
More Than Blood
Culture has more to do than what’s in your blood; for many, it’s where you’re from and the circumstances you grew up in.
Aragon explains that while she is Mexican by blood, growing up in America has affected her heritage. “I was taken out of Mexico so early in life—I mean, I definitely still have my Mexican heritage, and that’s overall what’s really important to me, but I’ve adopted a lot of American heritage as well. So, it’s mixed,” she says.
For Collier, it’s a bit more complicated. “I’m half-Chinese by blood, but after my mom’s side of the family lived in Hawaii so long, it seems like a kind of mixture with Hawaiian culture. And my dad’s just Caucasian,” he says.
This has had an interesting effect on the Chinese side of his culture; while people often say ‘kung hei fat choi,’ which basically means ‘Happy Chinese New Year,’ Collier explains that his pronunciation of the phrase is altered. “I pronounce it in a different way than traditional Chinese,” he says. “Apparently, it’s a Chinese/Hawaiian-esque mix.”
Culture isn’t always easy to define, though. “It’s very difficult for me to define what my heritage is,” says Medina. “I identify myself as a Chicana, because I’m not from Mexico and I’m from [America]. But then again, I’m still confused in the culture. … It’s like, ‘Where do I belong in this?’”
Of course, your culture isn’t just your blood—it’s what you believe in spiritually or religiously. For Medina, who is Catholic, practicing her religion is as simple as going to church every Sunday.
However, even that can become difficult with the busy schedule many college students are familiar with. “As a student, it’s kind of hard for me personally to obtain that obligation to go to church every Sunday because I’m piled with homework, especially now that it’s senior year,” she says. “It’s like, ‘I have to go to church,’ but then it’s like, ‘I have this assignment to turn in tonight at 11:59 p.m.’” She adds that she does try to go as much as possible, but will always go when she’s at home with her family.
For Chard, who is Jewish, it becomes a bit more complicated. “I used to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, all of the Jewish holidays. But I kind of stopped celebrating since I’ve been in college just because no one here celebrates, and because I moved [away from] my mom when I was 16, so the only person in my family who was also Jewish, I didn’t live with and didn’t talk to anymore,” she explains, adding that her views on religion have shifted in the past years.
Alshabanat says that practicing his culture here at Central can be very difficult. “In Islam, we have to pray five times a day,” he says. “So, sometimes I have a class, and the time for prayer is coming. ... It’s so hard for us to go back to our house and do all the five prayers together.” Additionally, there is no mosque in Ellensburg for Alshabanat or any other Muslim to go to.
However, Central has provided a room in Hertz hall for Muslim students to use for a special prayer done each Friday, in which an Imam—or worship leader—gives a speech about Islam and the Prophet.
It’s no secret that Ellensburg is a small town and moving away from family has its effects on how people live outside of the environment they grew up in.
Many students, like Aragon and Medina, have found community in clubs on campus such as MEChA. Medina thanks this club for giving her a community that she feels she can identify with while here at school.
“Without [MEChA] I wouldn’t have met people who I identify with, because it’s really difficult for me, especially [because] I’m a first-generation student,” she says. “But one of my friends ... inspired me and my other roommates to go to MEChA to connect with people who actually look like us who we can share a bit of our background stories with ... so I’m really thankful that I can identify with them.”
Aragon also found a community in this group as well, saying, “I reached out because it’s something that I haven’t had the opportunity to have, unfortunately. [My high school] wasn’t very diverse; there were a lot of white students, and I was pretty much the only Latinx person at school, so when I went to college, I really wanted to reach out.”
In our small town, however, it can be difficult to find a community.
“The community for Koreans is kind of small—it’s definitely is under 30 students. But that said, we do kind of try to keep in touch with each other. Most of us do,” says An.
Collier mentions that off-campus resources also make it difficult to keep up with tradition while at school. “If there was a Chinese store that had gau or mooncake or something, I’d probably go there a lot more than I do Safeway or whatever … but it’s just not offered or anything,” he says, adding that the “busy lives of college students” also affects how students stay in touch with their heritage.
While Chard has also had trouble finding her own community, she does attend the powwows organized by the Native American Association at the end of each year, in which anyone can come and have fun, eat fry bread and other Native food and learn more about Native culture.
However, fitting in hasn’t always been easy for Chard. “For me personally, there’s not really one person who shares what I am,” she says. “I’ve found people who are Native, but they’re not the same tribe as me.”
She adds that her light skin tone has made it more difficult, saying it’s hard “fitting in with my family because of the way I look, but also not fitting in with the people that I look like, because I’m not white.”
But for anyone struggling with their cultural identity or don’t feel in touch with their heritage, Chard emphasizes that for many, culture “isn’t necessarily depending on who you talk to; it isn’t necessarily something that you practice. It’s something that you are. It’s the blood that runs through your veins. It doesn’t matter if you dye your hair, if you move across the world ... it’s your being; you can never change that.”