Hispanic youth in Whatcom County are learning about traditional Latin American dances, folklore, and crafts in a new Washington State University Extension-led 4-H program, Para Familias Latinas.

“Para Familias is similar to a traditional 4-H club, but with a focus on the culture of Latin America,” said Alex Martinez, WSU Whatcom Extension Latinx Outreach Coordinator.

Participants learn to make piñatas, traditional crafts, and learn cultural dances, such as El Colás, a folkloric dance from the Mexican state of Veracruz.

“Many times, families lose traditions from their countries of origin,” Martinez said, using the example of Dia de Los Muertes, or the Day of the Dead. “It’s not just a fiesta – it goes beyond that. Our program helps young people learn and engage with their cultural roots.”

4-H is a national organization with programs throughout the country. WSU Extension supports 4-H programming in Washington, creating opportunities for youth development through volunteering, community projects, leadership activities, and experiential learning.

4-H participants work on posters to let their community know about Para Familias Latinas.

“Having grown up in New Mexico, I have always been aware of what a vibrant and wonderful contribution the Latin cultures make to our community,” said WSU Extension Regional Specialist Michael Wallace, who coordinated the funding for the program.

Wallace said he was excited when Martinez mentioned his passion for arts and culture.

“This program helps bridge the gap in our wider experience of Latinx culture,” he said. “There are a great deal of common values between our Latinx families and people in the wider Northwest, that can be discovered by sharing cultures at fairs and events.”

Martinez reaches out to groups and families, telling them about the program and encouraging them to get involved. The program’s Facebook page has been instrumental in spreading awareness and showcasing videos of traditional costumes, dances, and photographs of Para Familias Latinas projects.

Initially, Martinez worked with three families. That has grown to eight families now involved. Youth participants are between 7 and 12 years old. As more families join the program, Martinez is proud to see Latino students taking ownership of their culture.

“A lot of the kids I work with didn’t know their traditional folk dances,” said Martinez, who has been teaching youth using YouTube videos. “Now, they are learning well.”

Amid COVID-19 closures, Martinez has been adapting his projects. Instead of meeting as a group to make posters, Martinez put together kits with supplies, and dropped them off at his students’ doors so they could work on outreach posters at home.

Although the Latino community in Bellingham is small, Martinez said he hopes his work inspires other counties to provide culturally centered 4H programs.

“I hope our Washington youth continue to embrace their Latin American roots, that they continue to work with their children, the younger generation, and that they never forget who they are.”