Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Celebrating Burmese new year with a splash

CARRBORO - Yar Zar Htun closed his eyes, waved his arms above his head and danced from the second-floor landing to the music of the Latin band below.With his father behind him, the 6-year-old boy was safe from the water fights Sunday afternoon at Abbey Court Condominiums, where volunteers and residents held a Burmese Water Festival.
Abbey Court is home to many Mexicans and Burmese. In the latter culture, people welcome the new year with a "respectful sprinkling of water to cleanse friends and family members as the Buddhist deity Tha Gyar Min descends to grade each person for the past year," according to a story in the New York Times.
But respect was out Sunday as students from elementary school to the university ran around the parking lot with very big water guns.
"This is our version of the Burmese Water Festival," UNC sociology professor Judith Blau said. "But it's a mixture of Burmese, Latino and American."
Blau's students volunteer at the apartment complex, where she and others run the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Human Rights Center. The center holds youth programs, community workshops and advocates for local residents.
Alfonso Hernandez grew up in Carrboro and works as a community organizer at the Human Rights Center while attending Durham Technical Community College.
"I've learned a lot from this community, both socially and culturally," said Hernandez. His parents migrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, where many Abbey Court families come from.
Khin Sein, Yar Zar's father, works in UNC's housekeeping department with his wife. They have lived at Abbey Court almost three years.
"I like this place because we are working," he said as he sat on the landing in his native longyi, a traditional men's skirt.
The Mexicans and Burmese children mix well, but their parents face different challenges, Blau said.
Many of the Mexican men, some of them illegal immigrants, are day laborers. They gather on the street each morning and wait for work. Many of the Burmese, resettled here as government-recognized refugees, work at the university.
"They live in different occupational niches," Blau said. "The Burmese, they're thinking the American dream is ahead of them. The Latinos, there's no America dream ahead of them."
Events like Sunday's, where children of all races and ethnic groups ran around getting soaked and everyone lined up for green chile tamales, help bring the groups together.
"They are two communities going through perilous times," Blau said. "If they form a bond - as they are - it's really strengthening for both of them."
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