Let's Talk Human Rights Blog - December 2017

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    How Iowans of Differing Backgrounds End One Year and Ring in a New Year: Snapshot of Four Iowans

    The term “culture” takes on different meanings dependent on the context and who is interpreting it. To some, it may mean going to an artsy play or opera to “get cultured” or enlightened. In the world of science, it is something in a Petri dish. The Latin origin of the word “culture” means to grow or cultivate and is correspondingly found in the word “agriculture.” But most often times, the word conjures childhood memories, traditions, heritage and annual observances that is a way of life, passed down from one generation to future ones.

    As 2017 draws to a close, and the hope and promise of a new year is anticipated, families, friends and acquaintances will gather to celebrate with food, music and traditions they have come to love, as well as to share stories and customs taught to them at an early age with their young ones with an expectation they will be passed down to future generations.

    Rich in diversity of its people, Iowa is a state that continues to encourage this diversity and respect for multiculturalism that in the long run contributes to a strong and vibrant economy and enhanced quality of life. In this blog, four unique Iowans are featured to provide just a mere snapshot of the myriad of ways Iowans of diverse backgrounds pass down their culture at this time of year – and for some throughout the year.

    Hien LothiTai Dam - Laos

    Hien Lothi – Tai Dam - Laos

    Hien Lothi’s memories of her childhood in Laos are keen, as though it all happened yesterday. From a young age, Hien acquired five languages out of necessity, so, it is very fitting that she is the de facto “storyteller” in her family. Becoming the “keeper of the stories” happened naturally as she was the primary caretaker to her aging parents after migrating to Iowa from a Thailand-based refugee camp in 1979. While Hien’s father was alive, he regaled the family with memories when the family lived in Laos - before the communists forced the family’s evacuation to Thailand and later Marshalltown, Iowa. On New Year’s Eve, according to the lunar calendar, Hien remembers the importance it held for her parents who would prepare their home to receive guests, both invited and unexpected. Floors were cleaned and primed with candle wax until they shone.

    Traditional food and drink were made to offer to their ancestors, as well as to serve at the New Year’s Day feast the following day. It was considered to be bad luck if one’s ancestors were not fed and forced to look elsewhere for food offerings. Even worse should tragedy befall them in that quest and they were to fall into a boiling pot. To spare them such a fate in the after-life, Hien’s family offered their paternal ancestors cooked chicken, pork belly, Khao Dome and rice wine, along with splendid desserts.

    On New Year’s Day, Hien’s mother and the children woke early to ready the home and receive unannounced guests for a day-long “open house.” Visiting family and surprise guests would be treated to the finely made delicacies such as Khao Dome, which is made from sticky rice and filled with yellow beans, pork belly - all wonderfully wrapped in banana leaves. Elders would give money to children for treats. Parents gifted children with a new outfit, movie tickets and candy. This candy was special and different and made from vegetables such as Asian squash, sweet potato, and unique nuts and seeds such as coconut, water lily seeds and roasted watermelon seeds and dipped in sugar syrup. Back then, this was very labor intensive, but now, Hien shares that most can be purchased at markets like C Fresh in Des Moines. Music was played on gourd instruments, and people joined in on a rousing bean-bag game in which bags were filled with sand and had a kite-type tail. A sip of rice wine awaited the victors.

    Third-oldest in a family of eleven children, Hien and her siblings have passed down these and other family traditions to Hien’s many nieces and nephews.

    Sonia Reyes-Snyder – El Salvador

    Sonia Reyes-Snyder - El Salvador

    Sonia smiles broadly as she recollects childhood memories in the capital city of El Salvador, San Salvador, during Christmastime. But Christmas Day is not the focal point, but rather December 24th - Christmas Eve – also referred to as El 24 (the 24th) -- when neighborhoods across San Salvador stress the importance of visiting friends and family. In her childhood, Christmas Eve was a time of fellowship and rekindling of friendships and relationships with no emphasis placed on gifts or material goods.  

    Unlike the frozen tundra that is Iowa this time of year, November is the beginning of summer in El Salvador and sets the stage for warm days and nights for communing outdoors. Fireworks dominate the night sky on the 24th as children enjoy a bit of freedom by visiting one another’s homes to play, dance and visit. The community keeps watch over them as they move about the neighborhood. Sonia recalls how special it was to receive a new outfit complete with new shoes or “el estreno.” Sonia remembers that back then, she and her sister, as well as many of the other children in her neighborhood, would normally own just three outfits: one school uniform and two to wear outside of school.

    Traditional El Salvadoran Christmas Eve dinner features Panes con Pavo – a savory El Salvadoran turkey sandwich. Accompanying panes con pavo is a warm drink like Atol de elote made from corn, milk, cinnamon and sugar. Drinking soda at both Christmastime and New Year’s was a big treat and one Sonia remembers fondly.

    New Year’s Eve is also a special time for El Salvadorans, and again, fireworks are everywhere, not just in the skyline. Everyone is expected to bring them and participate. Children will throw “poppers” and anticipate the miles-long parade at midnight when El Torito Pinto – a constructed, hallowed bull - is covered with swirling fireworks and carried through neighborhoods while lit. New Year’s Eve dinner in Sonia’s home consisted of panes con pavo, chicken or pork tamales wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, and warm punch.

    Vicky Apala-Cueves, Oglala Lakota – Sioux Nation

    Vicky Apala-Cueves - Oglala Lakota – Sioux Nation

    Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Vicky Apala-Cueves spent her childhood there before relocating to Iowa in 1965, when she was among the first group to participate in Job Corps in Clinton, Iowa. Vicky, who was raised in traditional Native culture, met other indigenous people there seeking a career path. She made life-long connections and friends while obtaining her GED and a driver’s license which led to her eventual career as a Class A-endorsed “over-the-road” truck driver until her husband’s health declined.

    Throughout the many seasons of her life, Vicky has carried with her the traditions her tribe: the Oglala Lakota – one of the nine fires of the Sioux Nation. Her step-father’s teachings are not only imparted on her own children, but with the many she directly works with in the Iowa Department of Corrections – both facility staff and prisoners. Vicky also relies on resources such as Oglala Lakota College in Pine Ridge, South Dakota to keep the ways of her ancestors and culture intact and protect the Lakota way of life.

    Unlike holidays marked by a calendar date or aligned with phases of the moon, special times of year and major events are based on the changing seasons when survival hinged on the land and what the earth would yield that time of year. The Lakota calendar is much more descriptive than by today’s standards:

    • January – Hard Moon
    • February – Moon When the Trees Cracked Due to the Cold
    • March – Moon of the Sore Eyes
    • April – Moon When the Wife Had to Crack Bones for Marrow Diet
    • May – Moon of the Green Leaves
    • June – Moon When the June Berries Are Good
    • July – Moon of the Green Leaves/Moon When the Choke-berries are Black
    • August – Moon of the Ripening/Harvest Moon
    • September – Moon of the Brown Leaves
    • October – Moon in which the Wind Shakes Off the Leaves
    • November – Winter Moon
    • December – Moon When the Deer Shed their Horns

    In preparation for the harshest time of year, the Lakota and other tribes kept a Winter Count, which was a necessity and an accounting of the past winter’s observations for things such as pony and buffalo herd counts & migration patterns, conflicts with other groups and anything else that could be counted. Vicky’s brother owns a replica of a Winter Count traditionally scribed on deer hide and buffalo skin.

    This written documentation is rare in Native culture as language was more oral. And because of multiple tribal languages in existence at that time, universal sign language among tribes was developed in order to speak to one another. Lakota verbal language is still taught as part of the summer youth program at a college on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, but Native signing is only taught by the remaining elders who are willing to teach it.  

    Respect for the environment and its power was taught to Vicky from an early age and her parenting also reflected this year-round love of nature. One daughter became an expert fisher, and her other daughter dances at pow-wows – traditional, sacred Native dances where each step is a prayer to Mother Earth and the drumbeats represent the heartbeat of our mother.

    For the Lakota, one day does exist that marks a day of mourning and has become a part of the fabric of their culture: December 29, 1890. This was the day over 150 Lakota Sioux died at the Massacre at Wounded Knee, which remains the largest mass killing in United States history.

    Almardi Abdalla - Khartoum, Sudan

    Almardi Abdalla - Khartoum, Sudan

    Iowan Almardi Abdalla recounts the two most important times of the year for Muslims worldwide: Ramadan and Eid al-Adha (The Feast of the Sacrifice). The dates of these two annual milestones are based on the lunar calendar, but with a twist. They are also subject to moon sightings. Almardi points out that is often difficult to plan ahead and ask for days off, because it frequently requires help from NASA to calculate the exact date ranges for each occasion.

    Ramadan occurs in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims will fast for 30 consecutive days - from dawn to dusk. Fasting requires that one abstain from all food, liquid and carnal vices during this time. Almardi remembers what his parents imparted onto him and his siblings during fasting: power in faith will get you through.

    Muslims do not require that children fast, but Almardi, who grew up in Sudan, wanted to start his training early and begged his parents to fast when he was 7 years old. His parents discouraged total fasting until he reached 18, when one is obligated to fast. He realized quickly that fasting was not a game, and hunger is both real and painful. In his youth, Almardi would hide and sneak something to drink or eat. Eventually, he would feel guilty and confessed to his parents after Ramadan who turned it into a teaching moment: “if you cheat, it is between you and God.” Almardi has carried this lesson with him throughout his adulthood and learned that life does not stop because of your hunger – one must endure it and believe that faith is guiding you through hard times.

    Remembering neighbors who are less fortunate in the community is also another important facet of Ramadan. After the fasting experience, one better understands their hunger and plight and intimately connects Muslims to their struggling neighbors and encourages them to donate time, goods, and money.

    During Ramadan in Des Moines, Almardi’s mosque, which has a commercial kitchen for cooking meals, turns into a nighttime meeting place where many donate time or money to provide meals for the community of faith and beyond. Muslims from all walks of life come together nightly for 30 days to eat after sunset: Sudanese, Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Indo-American, Turkish, Egyptian, Somali, Eritreans, Senegalese, Caucasian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Latin X, Ghanaian. Almardi feels it is a beautiful thing to experience, and it often turns into an international buffet where one can experience food from all of these nations. In keeping with the spirit of Ramadan, the excess food is then delivered to area shelters, the elderly and neighbors undergoing difficult times.

    During the last seven days of Ramadan, gifts such as new prayer garments and gifts for children are exchanged.

    Once the time of fasting is complete, the feasting or EID begins, and it is very community-oriented. People will wake early to pray and recite the Qur’an together. Some will break fast with neighbors or work colleagues, and it is believed that the more people one is able to share their food with, the more blessings one will receive from God. Almardi chuckles as he remembers people tripping over each to feed a fellow neighbor.

    The second most significant Muslim holiday, which is also lunar-based and occurs several months following Ramadan, is The Feast of the Sacrifice or Eid al-Adha. Lasting five days (three in Iowa), Muslims celebrate two major occurrences: 1) completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj); and 2) the story of Ibrahim and his son. Every year, Muslims will purchase a slaughtered sheep, goat, or cow to symbolize the tradition of the Prophet Ibrahim, and the meat is divided into 3 parts: friends, charity and household. Almardi shares that many local Iowa farmers know their holidays well and understand that Muslims prefer fresh hallal meat - slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law - whenever possible. Almardi works with local farmers and guides Muslim shoppers to them so they are able to see the animal and source. Social media is used to compare prices and notes on quality.

    Written by Tina Shaw, Executive Officer, Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs

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