Learning, laughter and tasty food ruled the day as LeAnn Goya’s classes celebrated Latin American Culture Day at West End Elementary.

For the second year, Goya decided to make her unit on Latin America a little more real to her students.

“We are learning about the culture, the influences, the people, the history,” she explained. “My husband is from South America, Ecuador, so I thought it would be fun to cook some typical South American food for my students.”

During trips to visit her husband’s family in Ecuador, Goya learned about Latin American cuisine and how to prepare it. She made two of her husband’s favorites, empanadas con queso and tostones con queso. She even prepares the food in class, so the students can see the process.

She uses con queso fresco — fresh cheese — to top the tostones, which are twice-fried plantain slices. Her empanadas are bread stuffed with the queso and fried, then topped with sugar – basically, fried pies.

Goya showed the students how to peel the plantains and cut them up. She also showed them how you smash them after you fry them the first time.

She also fielded questions about why they looked just like green bananas and explained that the taste was different depending on when you eat them.

“Green plantains have more of a potato-like texture and taste,” she told her students. “If you wait until they are yellow, they will be sweeter. They are in the banana family, but not the same thing.”

Goya added that her husband loves the tostones, and they are one of his favorite sides to a meal.

While this is a great way to really introduce the students to the culture, she admitted she ran into a tiny road block the morning of Latin American Culture Day.

“I got here and the fryer I keep in my room decided to stop working,” she said, laughing. “This was an emergency, but thankfully we are right next to Walmart, so I ran over and got a new one.”

Because her kids were so excited about the day, she didn’t want to disappoint them, she added.

“When I did this last year, word spread through the grades, so everyone came in here at the beginning of the year knowing about it,” she said. “They look forward to it.”

In addition to Goya cooking, the students are asked to bring in food.

“We have a wide range of cultures and countries represented at our school,” she said. “Many of the students have family members from Latin America.”

In fact, those families were happily bringing in large plates filled with food made from recipes that had been passed down from generation to generation.

Giovanni Luna’s parents brought in two trays filled with ceviche — a seafood dish made from fresh fish cured with lime, tomatoes and onions, spiced with peppers that is eaten with tostadas. Giovanni told his classmates that his brothers had been really, really wanting some of the ceviche the night before, but couldn’t have any because it was for the class.

“My mother got the recipe from her mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother,” Giovanni added.

The Lunas were thrilled about the Latin American Culture Day and happy to help, they said.

“It’s a great experience for the kids,” said Yolanda Luna, Giovanni’s mom. “It’s wonderful that they can share and learn about a different culture.”

Another mom brought her mother’s tamales and another brought in enchiladas. Students brought in food they’d made themselves, such as roasted corn or salsa.

Other students like Alfredo Rodriguez brought in sodas — one from Guatemala, where his mother is from, and one from Honduras, where his father is from. He also brought bags of chips that are popular from each.

“I like showing people how we eat and how we drink,” Alfredo explained. “The different stuff we do. I love the food and the language.”

Alfredo is actually fluent in more than one language, because he not only speaks English, he also speaks Spanish in the dialects of his parents’ respective countries.

Rosie Strickland, a mom who brought in tamales for the day, said she thinks days like the Latin American Culture Day are important for everyone.

“Having pride in your culture and sharing it is always a good thing,” she said. “Learning something new is always good, too, and food is a great way to introduce others to a culture.”

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