Astout man kneeled along the curb of a downtown sidewalk, hammering wooden planks into an elaborate miniature altar, complete with marigold wreaths and human skulls, to commemorate his relatives on the Day of the Dead. I stood beside the construction, lost in fascination of what was taking shape. Fellow pedestrians, however, confronted the structure with deriding remarks of how vulgar this tradition must be to flaunt skulls to the world.
Their animosity struck an unnervingly familiar chord with me.
My mind instantaneously conjured memories of my Diwali fireworks a year earlier. I had eagerly snatched a handful of sparklers from the cabinet and used their fire to trace spirals and stars in the night sky that blanketed my front lawn. My neighbors, however, perceived my cheerful celebrations as an attempt to burn down the neighborhood, and forced me to cease my festivities before they called the police on an eight-year-old – even though they religiously lit Independence Day fireworks themselves.
"And in that moment, I witnessed firsthand just how closely my own estrangement paralleled the misinterpretations that Hispanic communities, in particular, face in today’s society."
- Viraj S.
I recalled that my restless, youthful imagination could never have pictured the antagonism I would receive simply from practicing my own customs. I recollected the mounting sense of detachment I felt between my culture and the preconceived notions of others.
But, after hearing the remarks of the passers-by, it became clear that this separation extended far beyond my own experiences. My neighbors’ failure to comprehend my own traditions was, in fact, merely one example of the many backgrounds that public misconception has outcasted.
And in that moment, I witnessed firsthand just how closely my own estrangement paralleled the misinterpretations that Hispanic communities, in particular, face in today’s society. Just as my cultural festivities met indignation, Hispanic traditions and identities seldom received the appreciation they deserved. This observation sparked within me a flame to help reverse this social stigma and illuminate the hidden beauty of other cultures.
In my junior year, the opportunity to preside over my school’s Spanish Honor Society channeled this enthusiasm. Inspired by the cultural activities I had joined previously, I organized a school fundraiser to celebrate the Day of the Dead, complete with traditional sugar skulls and freshly baked loaves of pan de muerto. In contrast to the hostility of my childhood neighbors or the contempt of passers-by, my fellow classmates instead met these foreign customs with open arms. Both students and teachers of all ethnicities bombarded the sales volunteers with questions about the underlying beliefs of the holiday and how the bread symbolically honors the dead. As I brought these fundraisers to community centers, strangers with disparate backgrounds could abandon their preconceptions and form the same parallels that I felt years ago.
Observing the unification of my community in the celebration of one culture reminded me of the importance of bringing a harmony and awareness among not only the Hispanic background, but all ethnicities in modern society. As our country’s melting pot diversifies, minority populations will grow drastically in size and power. With a wider diversity of employees, voters, and innovators, our well-established institutions of democracy and capitalism must adapt to represent these growing ethnicities.
"As our country’s melting pot diversifies, minority populations will grow drastically in size and power. Yet, we often innately refuse to recognize these populations simply because we lack intimate familiarity with their traditions and core values – because they are different."
- Viraj S.
Yet, we often innately refuse to recognize these populations simply because we lack intimate familiarity with their traditions and core values – because they are different. As a result, by disparaging Day of the Dead altars or scorning Diwali traditions, our society stifles this essential and inevitable adaptation. Rather than ridiculing and stereotyping these inherent differences, however, it is imperative to embrace each culture for the fresh new perspectives it will contribute to every aspect of our lives.
I will be attending Yale University in the fall of 2019, with my mind set on this imperative mission. As an avid contributor to La Casa Cultural, Yale’s Latino cultural center on campus, I will work alongside other passionate students to help introduce the Puerto Rican music of Haciendo Punto en Otro Son to Yale and New Haven. Organizing folkloric ballet floors on Mexican Independence Day, I can expand my efforts of advocacy and awareness to new, open-minded audiences.
Alongside my intended major in computer science, Yale’s distributional requirements will give me the unique flexibility to pursue this goal through my academics as well. Supplementing my workload with Latin American Studies courses such as Contesting Injustice, I will be able to comprehend my own technologies in the context of the cultural and social adaptations our world needs to thrive.
Furthermore, Yale College boasts an unparalleled unity of academic departments, where schools of engineering, science, and humanities are not exclusive to one another, but are all equally accessible to every student. I plan to take advantage of this unison within my undergraduate experience to easily pursue double majors, freely take electives in cultural studies at Yale, and further my understanding of the social progression of our globe.
Despite the fundamental obstacles our rapidly evolving society currently poses to truly acknowledge this goal, I hope to play my part to promote the respect that every culture deserves and, in the process, enable these adaptations myself. Although I can’t light fireworks in the process, I will continue burning away the barriers that separate us from the awareness and acceptance of others.
- Viraj S.