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Clearwater summer campers connect with Mexican culture

CLEARWATER

Antonio Martin stood before a table of youngsters as he scribbled foreign words on a dry-erase board. He repeated the same process: Write the word, pronounce it several times, translate it into Spanish and English.

Among the words was metsi, which means boy. And ya da ma, which means bye.

"You can use these words at home," Martin told the students. "To learn a language, you must practice it."

The words were in Hñahñu, a dialect spoken in several Mexican states, including Hidalgo.

Martin is among four Mexican professors teaching roughly 25 students, most of them of Mexican heritage, about the Latin American country's culture, including folklore dances, history, geography and language.

For the past four years, the Florida Federation of Hidalguenses has offered the summer program, held this year at Grace Lutheran Church on Highland Avenue.

"We want our children to learn our culture and to learn where we come from," said Eleuterio Rodriguez, the federation's president.

Rodriguez said the camp reflects the large population of Mexicans — many of them from Hidalgo — living in Clearwater.

From 2010 to 2012, nearly 3,500 Mexicans were living in Clearwater, which has a population of 110,000, U.S. Census records show. Rodriguez is among them. He moved to the United States about 20 years ago and worked at factories and restaurants. When he saved enough money, he opened a Mexican grocery store and taco shop in Largo. He has two sons, ages 8 and 14.

"Our children are American," he said, "but we want them to learn all of this."

Erik Bautista, one of the teachers, said the program is important because many working parents don't have the time to pass down the culture and history of Mexico to their children.

"Sometimes the parents that are here don't show them anything," he said.

Throughout the day, the students, split into two groups, attend four classes: dialect, history, dancing, and arts and crafts.

Among the students is 14-year-old Kassandra Baxcajay. She's been going to Mexican summer programs in Clearwater since she was 6. She is fluent in English, Spanish and the Hidalgo dialect, which she often speaks at home with her parents.

"My dad doesn't want me to forget my roots," she said.

A few seats away was 11-year-old Emily Hernandez. On a recent Wednesday, she colored a drawing of Quetzalcoatl, one of the major deities of the ancient Mexican pantheon, skimmed through a textbook about the Aztecs, and learned that Mexico has 31 states and a federal district.

Emily, who aspires to become the first female U.S. president ("I have a lot of plans," she says), was born here, but she is the daughter of Mexican parents.

Her mother, Lourdes Dominguez, said she decided not to enroll Emily in Summer Bridge, offered by the school district, after learning about the Mexican program.

"I want her to know our customs," Dominguez, of Clearwater, said.

It seems to be working, according to her daughter.

"I love to learn about my mom and dad's culture," Emily said.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.

Clearwater summer campers connect with Mexican culture 07/09/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 11, 2014 2:44am]
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