Chattanooga students celebrate 'Coming to America'

Chattanooga students celebrate 'Coming to America'

June 19th, 2012 by Perla Trevizo in News

Stephanie Smith, below, ESOL assistant choir director, leads a group of 130 students in song as they practice a "Coming to America" program that they will perform Thursday at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Centenial Theatre. The students represent 35 different countries, according to Hamilton County Schools.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

• What: Coming to America

• When: 5-7 p.m. Thursday

• Where: Centennial Theatre, 1400 Market St.

• Admission: Free

• Information: 423-643-6706

Rows of children of all ages stood inside a big room at East Brainerd Intermediate School.

At times they giggled; at times they laughed nervously. But when it was time to perform, they pulled together and loudly sang in unison:

"Love in any language straight from the heart, pulls us all together, never apart. And once we learn to speak it, all the world will hear, love in any language, fluently spoken here."

It's the chorus to a song titled "Love in Any Language" and it's Nieves Santana's favorite song.

"I love everybody," said the petite 8-year-old, who is participating in the Coming to America program this summer, along with more than 130 Hamilton County Schools' English as a second language students.

As part of the multicultural summer camp, the students, representing more than 35 countries, will sing and act Thursday at the Centennial Theatre.

Nieves came from the Dominican Republic last year and is working on her English, but she said she has particularly enjoyed singing.

"I want to be a singer," she said Monday after one of the last practices before the performance.

She said she likes the themes of the songs selected, which are meant to promote unity, "because even though some of us are brown or black, we are all the same."

The idea of Coming to America started with the Dalton Public Schools district almost a decade ago, said Anjelika Riano, English speakers of other languages coach for the Hamilton County Department of Education.

"The goal is to unify the community," she said.

Nelly Montoya, a Southern Adventist University student who interned at the summer camp, said the program helps young people accomplish two goals.

"For the kids, it's a great way to practice their English and to meet other kids like them, who share the immigrant experience.

For the community at large, she said, the program underscores the diversity already here.

"I didn't know we had 75 languages just in Chattanooga alone," she said. "There's a perception that [the city] is largely homogenous, but it's not like that anymore. It will be good for the community to see we are diverse and with that comes strengths because we can learn from each other."

About a decade ago, school officials said, there were only about 15 languages spoken in the school district.

In a nearby building from where the chorus sang, about 40 students were practicing three pantomime scenes in which they will act out the history of immigration. The first scene starts with the story of Squanto, the Native American known for assisting the Pilgrims and being a mediator; then proceed to Ellis Island, the entry point to the United States for about 12 million immigrants; and ends with contemporary immigration, accompanied by the Neil Diamond song "America."

"It's a lesson we can learn as adults to work with people who are different than we are but also learn from them and respect our differences," said Beverly Cosley, director of the city Office of Multicultural Affairs, which partnered with the district and provided the venue for the performance.

Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at 423-757-6578 or ptrevizo@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo.