NYC’s bilingual charter school celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with first-ever festival

Hispanic Heritage Month Festival
The American Dream Charter School celebrates its first-ever Hispanic Heritage Month Festival on Friday, Oct. 14.
Photo Nicholas Hernandez

Salsa and mariachi music filled the hallways at the American Dream Charter School in the Bronx on Friday. Hispanic countries’ flags spread across the building, and 18 classrooms and the cafeteria were transformed into a specific country — kicking off the first Hispanic world celebration at the school.

As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, which ran from Sept. 15-Oct. 15, the faculty began planning the event in late July. More than 90% of students at the school identify as Latino and Hispanic, with many identifying as first-generation Americans. The school with grades 6-12 also serves as the only bilingual charter high school in New York City, according to Melissa Melkonian, the founder and head of the school — making the event even more significant.

Ninth graders sing-a-long to the mariachi’s rendition of “Como La Flor,” by Mexican-American singer Selena. Photo Nicholas Hernandez

“There is a sense of assimilating to the American way,” Melkonian said. “What we’re trying to do is validate the children of who they are and have their culture, their music, their food, their language be a part of what America actually is.”

“It’s very humbling to see our students be able to not just integrate with their own culture, but also learn about other cultures,” she added.

Over the last month, students began exploring and researching their selected country. On Friday, while holding a pamphlet replicating a passport, students were transported to a new country as they entered each room. They listened to their peers, awaiting a stamp of completion on their passports.

“There’s beauty in diversity and I think our students have really been able to see that through this event,” said Johanna Quizhpe, head of the Spanish department at American Dream Charter School.

As a group of students left the room, a new one entered. And ready to take center stage was ninth grader Jose Prudencio. The Venezuelan poster, popping with colors of yellow, blue and red, was one of the 18 countries showcased. Shaking off his nerves, Prudencio, who is Honduran, began the group discussion about the geography of Venezuela.

Kimberly Lopez, a ninth grade student, presents her section about Argentina. Students learned the history, culture and current events of 18 countries at the city’s only bilingual charter school on Friday, Oct. 14. Photo Nicholas Hernandez

“I enjoyed learning about all different types of cultures, so if I ever visit the place, I know the area,” Prudencio said.

In addition, his classmates along with their adviser, English teacher Jesus Garcia, discussed current events, traditions, history and government — which Prudencio found to be exciting to share knowledge of Venezuela.

“I am blown away by the outcome, like I’m really proud,” Garcia said. “Sometimes, all you know are the ideals in your culture and your belief system. But it’s important to have exposure to how other people think.

“Luckily, we have students from so many different countries, ethnic backgrounds, languages, even different parts of the Bronx — so they are able to come together.”

Tiffany Avila, a ninth grade student who concluded her group presentation on Argentina, found the presentations important as they struck vital conversations about the well-being of the residents in the country. Taking in the mariachi band performance in the cafeteria and salsa performers in the lobby, Avila eagerly anticipated trying an array of traditional Latin foods.

Students Tiffany Avila and Ariana Torres dance to the music of the Salsa performers as the Hispanic Heritage Month festival ends. Photo Nicholas Hernandez

The menu included flautas, a traditional Mexican dish, pupusas, an El Salvadorian and Honduran dish, maduros, a popular Cuban side dish, and Belizean panades, among other international cuisine.

“It’s a full experience,” Garcia said. “You got to listen to the music. You got to learn about the culture. You got to see different images. And, I think also tasting the culture, that’s like the cherry on top.”

Quizhpe said it was fulfilling and heartwarming to see the children learn about different countries and take pride in their cultures.

Quizhpe, the Spanish department head who said she was running on a few hours of sleep because of the extensive preparation for the event, is excited to see what the future holds for similar events next year.

“Our hope is that our students are reminded of how beautiful diversity is and how we can really represent the Latino culture everywhere we go,” she said.


Correction: This article was updated at 5:50 p.m. on Oct. 20. It stated that American Dream was the only bilingual charter school in NYC. 

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