Conexiones Latinas

Cultural Festival: Connecting With Cultures

Julia Evelsizer

The Pantagraph

On a green paper leaf, Brenda Joyner of Bloomington wrote the word “patience.”

She glued the leaf to a cardboard tree representing strengths in the community at the Cultural Festival Saturday at Illinois State University.

“I strive to be patient and I’m trying to grow in that direction,” she said.

Joyner has attended the annual festival, in its 37th year, for “many, many years.”

“If you’re interested in connecting with other cultures, you can start somewhere like this,” she said. “Then spread out to make diversity a big part of your life. Your life is not the only life.”

The purpose of the festival is to connect the wide variety of ethnicities in Bloomington-Normal through music, dance, art and fellowship.

Some of the performances in the Brown Ballroom included the Sugar Creek Cloggers, Odyssey World belly dancing, Japanese sword demonstration, a fashion showcase and solo singers.

“It provides an easy opportunity for the community to experience ballet, clogging, jazz, belly dancing...they can see a huge variety of cultures in one place,” said Tony Jones, program coordinator.

“With everything going on in the world, we need events like these where people can come together, mix and mingle, and enjoy a diverse environment.”

NIOTBN Arts Chairman Angelique Racki at the Festival.

NIOTBN Arts Chairman Angelique Racki at the Festival.

Community groups like Not In Our Town, the local NAACP branch, 100 Black Men of Central Illinois and BN Parents, shared information with visitors. Face painting, crafts and inflatables were available for kids.

While the Odyssey World belly dancers swayed to Middle Eastern music, 4-year-old Wynter Mann hopped off her seat in the audience and started to dance next to her grandma, Virginia Mann.

“It goes to show how people of other cultures can come together,” said Virginia, of Normal. 

Amber Schrlau of Stanford came to the festival for the first time with her kids Maeva, 4, and Murphy, 2.

“They need to know love and what better way than this event,” said Schrlau. “Not everyone is the same and that’s a good thing.”

The young dance group, Ballet Folklorico de Central Illinois, took the stage in authentic Mexican dancing costumes. The girls wore full red skirts and the boys wore sombreros. The group is part of Conexiones Latinas de McLean County, a non-profit organization with the goal of intercultural collaboration and connecting Latinos in the community.

“They are so excited about sharing this with the community,” said Javier Centeno, vice president of the organization. “This sort of event is about love; giving love to the community and respecting each other."

Donations Sought to Help Language School Students

Donations are now being accepted for the Cuca Avila Scholarship Fund which has been set up by Conexiones Latinas, Illinois Wesleyan University, and the Avila Family to help local students and families in need who want to attend Spanish Saturday School at the IWU Language School for Kids and cannot cover the financial cost. You can help a student learn or retain their Spanish by donating to Conexiones Latinas at the following levels:

Books: $30
Half Scholarship: $135
Full Scholarship: $300

If you want to help, visit…/ and donate directly through our fiscal agent Illinois Prairie Community Foundation (mark it as Conexiones Latinas Fund: Cuca Avila).

The IWU Language School for Kids offers Spanish classes for children Pre-K to sixth grade on Saturdays, January 16 through April 2, 2016. Classes are from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Language Resource Center in Buck Memorial Library, 1111 N. East St., on the IWU campus.

Filling a void not provided by local schools, the Spanish Saturday School aims to promote early second language acquisition and retention by children who want to learn Spanish. Local children ages 4.5 to 12 have the opportunity to learn Spanish and gain knowledge of the rich cultural traditions of Spanish-speaking cultures in a university setting every week.

Conexiones Latinas Helping Launch Ballet Folklorico

Conexiones Latinas de McLean County is launching a new endeavor, Ballet Folklorico de Central Illinois, an attempt to showcase the art and culture of the Latino community.

The original Ballet Folklórico de México is a Mexican ensemble in Mexico City. For six decades, it has presented dances in costumes that reflect the traditional culture of Mexico.

The ensemble also has appeared under the name Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández.

That ballet's works and musical pieces reflect various regions and folk music genres of Mexico. Many of the ensemble's works reflect the traditions of indigenous Mesoamerican culture.

Numbers of performers in individual dance numbers range from two to more than thirty-five.

Under Hernández, the group was a pioneer of Baile Folklórico in Mexico. Similar groups have formed in the U.S.


Language Education Focus of April 6 Film

A free screening of the film Speaking in Tongues is scheduled Monday, April 6, at the Normal Theater.

After the screening, Assistant Professor Elizabeth Skinner of the College of Education will facilitate a Q&A session discussing the potential benefits of dual-language immersion locally in the Bloomington-Normal community.

Speaking in Tongues is an award-winning documentary on language education in the United States. The film follows four children on their path to becoming bilingual. It took home the Documentary Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

This free screening is sponsored by State Farm Bank; Conexiones Latinas de McLean County; Illinois State University’s Latin American and Latino/a Studies Program; College of Education (School of Teaching and Learning); Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; and the Student Association of Bilingual Education, as well as Illinois Wesleyan University’s Department of Hispanic Studies and Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

For additional information, contact Professor of Latino/a Studies Maura Toro-Morn at or 438-8290.

Local Musician, Food Truck Open for Los Lonely Boys

                                                Marcos Mendez

                                                Marcos Mendez

Twin Citians will be offered a taste of local Latin food and music at Thursday's Los Lonely Boys concert at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal's Marcos Mendez, who also chairs the community advocacy group Conexiones Latinas, will open at 6:30 p.m. for the Texas band, which won a 2005 Grammy as best Pop Vocal Duo/Group. Mendez plans to perform blues, roots, rock, and some Mariachi tunes "mixed in for good measure."

Oogies Food on Wheels, a mobile restaurant, will serve Mexican-inspired foods from 5 to 7 p.m. outside the center. The food truck was launched last year by Kerry and Felipe Urquizo, with help from their three children, Oskar, Olivia, and Gus. Kerry works at Heartland Community College and Felipe is a cook at a local restaurant.

Local School Districts Cautious About Dual Language Programs

 Derek Beigh

The Pantagraph

BLOOMINGTON — When it comes to teaching children who speak languages other than English, Maura Toro-Morn thinks American schools have it all wrong.

"Schools see students who speak other languages as deficient," she said. "We need to see them not as deficient but as contributing something new."

Toro-Morn, director of Illinois State University's Latin-American and Latino Studies program, is one of the leading local voices pushing a new kind of language teaching: dual language immersion.

Immersion seeks to improve on two traditional language programs: foreign language teaching for English speakers that usually begins in middle or high school, and bilingual education that helps students who don't speak English learn the language but not necessarily the culture.

Dual language programs place students who speak fluent English and those who fluently speak another language — usually Spanish — into the same classroom.

Beth Hatt, an associate professor in ISU's College of Education, said that arrangement benefits both native English speakers and their new peers.

"Children who learn a second language in the early years develop advanced skills in communication and language ... denser gray matter in their brains, greater self-regulation skills, better literacy skills and a decreased propensity for developing dementia," she said. "Socially, evidence suggests bilingualism creates greater opportunities for employment ... and increased opportunities to develop cross-cultural understanding and relationships."

She added that students "who develop academic fluency in their native language typically develop stronger English skills than children in English only, ESL or bilingual programs because they are provided a more solid foundation. Additionally, children in the bilingual programs are typically segregated from their English-speaking peers. In dual language programs, they have opportunities to develop cross-cultural understanding and relationships as well."

The program also has economic benefits, both educators said. Graduates are more prepared for an increasingly global economy — "the future workforce of State Farm and Caterpillar requires a multilingual education," Toro-Morn said — and school districts can benefit, too.

"Dual language programs are typically less costly than the traditional bilingual and ESL programming," Hatt said. "Additionally, if dual language programs are high quality, the test scores of students will typically be higher than mono-lingual students, especially in reading and writing."

Bloomington-Normal schools, however, are cautious about jumping into dual language immersion. Some officials came away skeptical after an October summit on the topic at Illinois Wesleyan University.

“Right now, school funding is a limiting factor in looking at new programs,” said Cindy Helmers, assistant superintendent for curriculum and and instruction at Bloomington District 87. "We continue to look at the models and best practices that are out there."

Sandy Wilson, who holds the same position at McLean County Unit 5, said she doesn't "know that it’s realistic in the near future” to add a dual language program.

“It’s not a simple transition from what we have to dual immersion,” she said. "Funding, staffing, location, teacher certification, transportation ... you name it, we would have to consider it.”

Both District 87 and Normal-based Unit 5 host growing Spanish-to-English bilingual programs in addition to traditional pullout English-as-a-second-language instruction. Both have about a half-dozen bilingual staff members.

“Staffing of course is the biggest thing you have to look at (when considering dual language). That is where your largest amount of funding goes,” Helmers said. "Each year, the superintendent puts out hard-to-fill or specific needs that the district has, and it seems like bilingual teachers is always on that list.”

Added Wilson, “There’s not a large number of these teachers that the colleges are graduating” who are qualified to teach a dual language program. “It’s a small pool of candidates for a large need and a growing need."  

Both Twin City districts have traditional foreign language instruction. At District 87, it starts at the junior high level, and at Unit 5 at the eighth grade level. Offerings range from mainstays, including Spanish and French, to recent additions such as Mandarin Chinese.

Toro-Morn said the variety of languages spoken within a school district can make choosing a language for an immersion program difficult. Unit 5 houses students who speak fluently in 48 different languages, including 50 or more students who speak each of the top 14 represented; District 87 counts 35 languages spoken by its students.

Should local districts become interested in starting a program, they'll find a growing Latino population that supports Spanish as the best choice, according to an ISU report.

Unit 5's Hispanic enrollment jumped from 5 percent in 2009 to 7 percent — to about 950 — in 2014; District 87's increased from 8 percent to 12 percent — to about 650.

"If there we no Latinos here, we should still be having this conversation," said Toro-Morn. "Opportunities for young people who are bilingual or trilingual will be much more."

Alex Cardona, a business analyst at State Farm and member of the local Hispanic group Conexiones Latinas de McLean County, closed October's summit by affirming “the need is out there” for a dual language program in Bloomington-Normal.

“We can’t find enough truly bilingual employees (at State Farm). It’s not only bilingual but also biliterate,” he said. “You can be bilingual, but if you’re not bicultural, it’s like eating food without flavor.”

Toro-Morn said "as a nation, historically we have been multilingual."

"It's time for us to own that, and it's time for educational institutions to reflect that," she said.

NIOT Leaders Nominated for 2015 King Award

Mary Ann Ford

The Pantagraph

Three residents from Normal and three from Bloomington are nominated for the 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards. 

Adult nominees from Normal are Sonya Mau, Marcos Mendez and Takesha Stokes. Bloomington adult nominees are Anthony "Tony" Jones, Marc Miler and Elizabeth Robinson.

The winners will be determined by the Bloomington and Normal Human Relations Commissions and announced at the 39th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards luncheon at 1 p.m. Jan. 17 at Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. 

Mau is executive director and one of the founding parents of the Multicultural Leadership Program, designed to develop diverse leaders. She also is a founding member of the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation's Women to Women Giving Circle that raises money to meet the needs of local women and children and further develop philanthropic leadership skills.

She was the first woman and the first Asian to "break the glass ceiling" and achieve a high management position at Country Financial. She also is a long-time member of Toast Masters International and has been a mentor to numerous others.

                                                                    Marcos Mendez

                                                                    Marcos Mendez

Mendez is chairman of the board for Conexiones Latinas de McLean County and an active member of State Farm's Hispanic affinity group. He volunteers as a basketball coach at the YMCA and as a soccer coach for the Prairie Cities Soccer League.

He was instrumental in planning the first Day of the Dead celebration at the Children's Discovery Museum and secured 300 free passes to ensure all families who wanted to could participate. He also has been involved in the Minorities and Police Partnership which is designed to help foster better cooperation and understanding between the Bloomington and Normal police departments and the Latino community.

Stokes is a volunteer with the Boys & Girls Club, serving as a tutor, mentor and program assistant and was in part responsible for establishment of the Teen Pageant hosted by the club. She also is active in Mount Pisgah Baptist Church including serving on the food pantry team, as church clerk and an aide to the pastor. She also is a long-time member of the Orthodox Woodriver District Baptist Association.

She is first vice president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP and has served in several other capacities with the organization; and is past president of the Bloomington-Normal Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Jones has coordinated the Bloomington-Normal Cultural Festival; spearheaded the creation of an entrepreneur showcase to inform the community of minority business; and created a monthly fundraising event with proceeds going to different community organizations.

He has served on numerous committees and boards including the Bloomington Human Relations Commission, McLean County Urban League, Boys & Girls Club, Minority and Police Partnership, West Bloomington Revitalization Project, Black Business Alliance, 100 Black Men of Central Illinois and the Bloomington-Normal NAACP.

                                                                           Marc Miller

Miller is chairman of the Not In Our Town finance committee and has been an advocate for the group for more than 18 years, including taking the Not In Our Town Pledge cards into local schools.

He is a founding member of the Pratt Music Foundation and currently serves as president. He also founded the Share the Music program to provide low-cost rental instruments to Twin Cities children who want to participate in band or orchestra but can't afford the rental fees.

Robinson is membership chairman for the Black Business Alliance and is an active member of the Crossroads-Global Handcrafts board. She works with Heartland Community College students, volunteers with survivors of domestic violence through Countering Domestic Violence, and mentors teens, young women and women through the YWCA, Urban League, Junior Achievement and the NAACP.

Youth nominees

Eight Bloomington youths and four Normal youths have been nominated for the "I Have a Dream" award. They are:

Bloomington: Oludayo "Dayo" Ajayi, Markus Brooks, Radience Campbell, Tanmay Shah and Malik Woods, all of Normal Community High School; Jordyn Blyth and Jordynn Palmer, both of University High School; and Kianna A. King, Bloomington High School.

Normal: Lokesh Julakanti and Keerthi C. Amballa, both of NCHS; Kristina Smith, Normal Community West High School; and Imani Gilbert, University High School.