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Chest Brims With Cultural Treasures

by Denise-Marie Balona

December 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

ST. CLOUD -- Young Sammy Colon had his fears about starting school in Osceola County.

He was about to enter fourth grade at Michigan Avenue Elementary, a mostly white school in a mostly white town that has seen its Hispanic population grow slowly.

When he stepped into class, though, he was surprised to find a large chest painted with a bright green coqui, a tiny frog native to Sammy's former home, Puerto Rico. He opened the wooden box and found it brimming with books about the tropical island, folklore told in English and Spanish and photos of a waterfall in San Sebastian and the capital city of San Juan.

There also was a Puerto Rican flag, a straw hat and foods such as pana de pepita, salchichas and agua de coco -- breadfruit nuts, sausages and coconut water.

Sammy relaxed. The chest, he said, gave him the courage to talk about his differences. And his peers wanted to know more.

"That's my country," said Sammy, 10, now a fifth-grader. "It's a part of me."

"Maybe they haven't been to Puerto Rico, they haven't seen this stuff and they don't know what it's about."

The chest travels around Michigan Avenue Elementary as Puerto Rican children enroll. Lee Powell, who helped design it, says the box is supposed to help students get comfortable in their new environment and encourage classmates to learn about and appreciate Puerto Rican heritage.

The chest has been in use since 1996. Other schools and even community groups have begun borrowing it recently.

Officials plan to create others. One featuring Mexico is to be next, Powell said, because more immigrants from that country are moving here as Osceola County's Hispanic population swells.

A chest featuring African-American culture and another for Seminoles are now ready for use.

"To have some roots and belong to a culture and perpetuate that culture is really important," Powell said.

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