Gateway: Living

Culture Night celebrates Harbor Heights students’ unique backgrounds, traditions

Representing Guatemala is the Juan Mateo family, with Harbor Heights Elementary fifth-grader Isabel Juan-Mateo, center, showing off her cortes, a Mayan skirt.
Representing Guatemala is the Juan Mateo family, with Harbor Heights Elementary fifth-grader Isabel Juan-Mateo, center, showing off her cortes, a Mayan skirt. Special to the Gateway

Harbor Heights Elementary School gushed with student productions last month. First up was its Culture Night, featuring students and family members in costumes typifying their countries of origin including among others Japan, Mexico, Guatemala, Hawaii and, locally, Native America.

The school’s other big event, Circus Club Night, will be the subject of a subsequent Kids’ Corner.

Thanks to Lara Unger, Communities In Schools of Peninsula Coordinator at Harbor Heights, I got wind of this very colorful Culture Night, an exciting event featuring dance and music with ethnically appropriate musical instruments and colorful apparel.

“The goal for our first Culture Night was to celebrate the many cultures we have at Harbor Heights,” Unger said. “I could tell by the excitement of students and families that they were proud to share their countries’ unique cultures and traditions.”

Unger helped coordinate the event with English Language Learner teacher Kristie Stortini and school counselor Shea Sullivan.

English Language Learners are people who speak a second language and are learning the English language.

On stage, kids, some with parent participation, performed musical and dance renditions representing their lands of origin. The audience enjoyed the beauty and excitement of the productions.

Fifth-grader Isabel Juan-Mateo said, “My favorite thing about Culture Night was wearing my cortes, a Mayan skirt. I had a lot of fun answering questions about my country, Guatemala.”

Her classmate, Kimberly Ortiz, “had fun sharing about my country, Mexico. It was a lot of fun.”

Kimberly was joined in the festivities by family members Iris Renteria-Romero, a Goodman Middle School sixth-grader, and Harbor Heights students Hilary Romero-Lopez and Kimberly Ortiz, and mom-and-aunt Laura Sosa.

Representing native Americans was the LeTellier family, father Todd, who is on duty with the U.S. Army, big sister Aurora, little sister Autumn and mom Nicollette, who is proud of her Iroquois heritage.

Fourth-grader Nbaa Jaafar, from Iraq said, “I had fun talking about my culture and sharing about my country, Iraq.”

Maria Harris, who is of Japanese descent, and her daughter, Isabel, wore beautiful kimonos while accompanying son and brother James.

“My favorite thing I shared about Mexico is going to the plaza and getting ice cream with my family,” declared fifth-grader Jenifer Lara-Garcia.

Nine members of the Juan Mateo family represented Guatemala with fifth-grader Isabel Juan-Mateo, who was proudly displaying her cortes, a Mayan skirt.

“Our diversity is a special gift,” noted Sullivan, the counselor. “We talk about practicing empathy, knowing how someone is feeling, building or exercising empathy by learning about each other and each other’s culture.”

Sullivan added: “Special thanks to CISP and Lara Unger, who took the lead in this event. Their resources and presence in our school has been amazing!”

“I am looking forward to next year,” Unger said. “Families from Nigeria, England, and Japan have already approached me to be a part of next year’s Culture Night.”

Hugh McMillan is a longtime contributing writer for the Gateway. He can be reached at