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Students express cultural identity

Expressing yourself in a language other than the one you first learned isn't easy - especially when you leave your native country and move to such an overwhelming place as the United States.

To help some of Charlotte's English as a Second Language (ESL) high school students express themselves creatively in English, the Light Factory sponsors an annual outreach called "My Family, Our Stories."

The project, started more than 15 years ago, encourages 75 ESL students to learn basic photography, videography and narrative writing skills to help them express their cultural identity.

Students from South Mecklenburg High School and other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools high schools participated this year.

Instructors Van Miller and Vanessa Lathrop taught the students over eight weeks during the school year, with the help of the students' high school ESL teacher.

"The kids were allowed to take a video camera home with them one weekend and told to document their life," said Miller. "They usually came back with some really interesting stuff. I think it helped them to gain insight into their families and their own place in that family."

The students, who moved to the U.S. from countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vietnam, Russia and India, captured families, friends, environments and aspects of their culture from their own perspective.

An exhibition of the students' work, now on display at the Light Factory's Wachovia Gallery through Aug. 6, includes images of the student's home life, natural surroundings and cultural aspects, including food dishes from home and symbolic images like flags and currency.

The Light Factory will hold a public reception today from 6-9 p.m. featuring photos, booklets and short documentary-style pieces created by the students.

South Mecklenburg High School students who participated in the project are Hodan Ahmed of Somalia, Geovanna Perez of Ecuador, Ayerim Elizondo of Costa Rica, Milanny Erazo of Puerto Rico, Jonathan Guzman of Honduras, Luis Montoya of Mexico, Ethel Balongo of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kevin Salinas of Peru.

One of Hodan's images captures his sister smiling brightly. He's obviously very fond of her.

"See, I am a loving person," he wrote in his booklet. "Loving spending time with my sister. Holding hands with her brings happiness to my life."

One image several students seemed to gravitate toward was that of the changing colors of trees in autumn.

Ethel described her picture of trees populated with reddish-orange leaves.

"The blue sky watches," she wrote. "The red leaves are whispering to the sun shining."

Jonathan described autumn this way: "The ground is hungry. The trees are feeding the ground with colorful leaves."

Luis includes a picture of himself, smiling slyly. His description of the photo reads, "To be a Mexican means to be nice and cool, friendly and kind, and romantic and fun."

Luis' booklet also includes a photo of his dog, Cash.

"He has cost me a lot of money," Luis wrote. "So I named him Cash. His eyes are green like American money."

Miller, who has also taught photographic skills to other populations in Charlotte, including the homeless and prisoners, said his experience working with young students has taught him to never prejudge their abilities.

"Some kids appear to be uninterested, but they will always surprise you," said Miller.

"The work was good, some was great, and a few kids really were excellent," he said. "You never know who has the talent until you pass out the cameras and process the film."