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Locals celebrate independence day traditions as Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off

As a little girl in Costa Rica, Christina Schiano recalls building elaborate lanterns, lighting them up at night, and marching in townwide parades the next day to music played by the school band.

Now as a 43-year-old living in East Lyme, she thinks back to those days every year on Sept. 15, when her native country celebrates its independence.

She's not alone.  

Following the Mexican War of Independence, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were granted their independence from Spain on Sept. 15, 1821. Often mistakenly thought to be Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's independence day is Sept. 16 and Chile's is Sept. 18. The independence days are celebrated as Hispanic Heritage month, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, begins in the United States.

Schiano said "Desfile de las Faroles," or the parade of lanterns, is used to get schoolchildren involved in patriotic festivities. The night before Independence Day, the children go out with their parents to light the lanterns.

She said the lanterns are elaborate handmade constructions often depicting typical Costa Rican homes, the flag and large oxcarts, and it would get competitive to see which student built the best one.

Schiano said family members and old friends posted photos and videos on Facebook of this year's celebration of 200 years of independence.

"It makes me feel nostalgic," she said, adding that there aren't many Costa Ricans in this area.

A teacher at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London, Schiano works in the school's newly implemented bilingual program. There, she teaches a diverse group of children, some of them from Central American countries like her. Schiano said Central Americans lack representation in the region and are at times generalized as being all the same culturally.

She planned on presenting to her classes about the many independence days being celebrated this week.

Schiano said she became a Spanish and bilingual teacher to celebrate cultures.

"You can't learn a language without learning its culture," she said. "We're all different in our own way."

Grito de Dolores

Also longing for her native country in times of celebration, Margarita Hernandez Maxson is an artist who lives in Old Saybrook and is proudly Mexican.

"I celebrate Mexico every day," she said. "In what I cook, the music I listen to, what I paint and the way I dress."

Maxson, who is of Otomi and Nahuatl descent, wears colorful indigenous garments every day. While she dabbles in painting the history of the Northeast, most of Maxson's paintings are of her culture and ancestry. Many of them have been exhibited at local galleries.

She is working on making a copy of a portrait she made long ago of her grandfather for a customer.

Maxson said it wasn't until she left that she realized how much she took Mexico and her community for granted. Before leaving in 2006, she said she remembers attending only one "Grito de Dolores," or The Cry of Dolores, a tradition commemorating when Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla of Dolores MX in 1810 rang his church bell and gave the call to arms that triggered the Mexican War of Independence. Every year on the eve of Independence Day, town and city officials all across the country reenact the battle cry.

She remembered in 2005 making a visit to the state of Oaxaca, where Independence Day was one "big party" with all kinds of music, dancing and food.

Now she watches livestreamed videos of The Cry of Dolores from her home. Her family in Mexico sends her videos of the celebration, with mariachis, traditional folkloric dances and even memes.

Her goal is to pass on all of her culture, indigenous language and history to her 12-year-old son, who is American born.

When it comes to celebrating Hispanic Heritage month, Maxson said there is much to celebrate, but there is also a lack of unity within the Hispanic and Latinx community, with sectors of the population that don't know their culture or their history. 

"If we're going to celebrate, we got to know why we're celebrating," she said.

j.vazquez@theday.com

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