Celebrating culture through portraiture

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In a society where outward representation of culture is restricted to specific days on the calendar, such as Cinco de Mayo, Ramadan, Holi or Chinese New Year, it’s easy to forget that heritage is often integral to a woman’s identity. This month, The Wire set out to celebrate the customs and traditions embodied in women’s clothing and jewelry from all over the world. Four women participated in a portrait session to display their cultural wear. From learning how to make mango sticky rice to teaching young kids Indian fusion dance, these women then recounted how their culture has played an important role in shaping who they are today.





Isabel Engstrom


I remember my first visit to Thailand like it was yesterday. For months, I had been begging my mom to take me back to the country where she was born. Strange but familiar smells wafted through the air. I could hear the comforting sound of the Thai language— a language that I did not understand but that I had grown up with and that made me feel at home. My mom bought me my outfit, handmade out of Thai blue silk, on our trip that summer. It was a modern take on the traditional Thai outfits and includes fabrics worn by young women while shopping or spending time with friends.

My grandmother moved my mother and her siblings to the United States when my mom was only 11 years old, but much of our culture has been preserved. I always ask my grandmother to teach me whenever she is cooking because food is such an important part of Thai culture. Cooking for and eating with family and friends has always been important to her and has certainly rubbed off on me. From her, I have learned to make a traditional beef salad called larb, papaya salad and boil sticky rice to make mango sticky rice. The list goes on and on. The cooking is fun, but the best part of the day is eating amongst those I love. I remember being small and hearing my mother and grandmother converse in and out of English and Thai, and how we laughed at stories from my mother growing up in the rice paddies or marveled at how miraculous my grandmother was and still is, starting a life from scratch here in America with hopes for better futures for her children. To be Thai is to be gracious, to be courageous, to be strong, to be generous and I am so proud to be half Thai.





Katia Espinoza


Throughout my life, I have always seen the importance of Catholicism in my culture. Catholicism is not just a religion in Mexican culture, it is the essence of our culture, and we are almost always brought up with the ideals and morals that it instills in us. My family, in particular, is very Catholic. Like my parents, I went to Catholic school, and I was expected to fulfill all of the sacraments, just as they had. Until recently, I had always blindly followed the ways of the Church, without ever questioning the reality of the institution.

Because of its age, Catholicism has established its presence throughout the world, and its following is quite large. However, it has been frequently tied to controversial news, which has made me rethink my blind faith in the Church. In addition to this, the history of Catholicism in Latin America is very gruesome, and to forget what it had done to the indigenous people of the Americas would be irresponsible of me. So, because of this, I still wear my religious jewelry, not in complete blind faith, but because it is a symbol of my Mexican heritage, and it is an immense part of my culture that I can’t ignore.





Rutu Samai


In American culture, referring to us as “brown” is discouraged, and any discriminatory slurs are taken extremely seriously. But colorism is so deeply rooted in Indian society that the Hindu caste system is based on skin color. Growing up, I was banned from playing outside for more than 20 minutes because “God forbid you get any darker and disappear into the night.” As a teenager, I took my family’s word for it and began purposely turning down pool parties and outdoor sports, and wore leggings in 90 degree weather. It’s ironic because once I moved to college and became the only brown person in the room, I began to realize that no one really cares, and dark is beautiful, too. Once, while walking on Pirates Cove, I was asked, “Where can I buy that glowing skin?” In this country, we have foundation shades to suit every skin tone, campaigns like #unfairandlovely, role models of all colors and the concept of self love.

I’m incredibly happy to call two countries home because my identity truly resides in both. I grew up as a competitive ballet, jazz, contemporary and classical Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dancer. When people ask how I got into entrepreneurship, I can proudly say my first business was “Rutu’s BollyJazz Company,” where I taught over 50 students who competed and won in several Indian fusion dance competitions. My duality of choice in music, dance and fashion—thanks to my mom’s own Indian clothing and jewelry line—is a blessing. It’s amazing to see America embrace parts of the Indian culture. My elementary school friends made fun of my “pee looking” turmeric-milk, but today it’s a popular Kardashian body cleanse. Moreover, being raised as an Indian-American has grounded me. When I see injustices in this country, I can recount philosophies my parents shared from the Gita, a Hindu scripture, to be a wholesome citizen— one with patience, love and acceptance.





Sophia Berg


This is an original costume from the region of Florina in northern Greece from the early 1800s.  This region has a much colder climate than other parts of Greece, and therefore has thick, woolen garments. My family is from a similar region in northern Greece.

Even though I grew up aware of my Greek heritage, it actually wasn’t until college that I really connected with my culture. I was lucky enough to find my closest friends at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church here in San Luis Obispo, and even participate in a Greek dance group with other Cal Poly students. I can’t imagine my college experience without this close-knit group of friends I’ve made in the Greek community. I am also proud that I’ve been able to carry out the traditions and legacy of my great-grandfather who immigrated to America from Greece in the early 1900s. I hope to pass on these Greek traditions as well.

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