“Are you even sisters? You don’t even look alike.” It’s a question sisters Julia and Tali Herrera Falute hear often.

The two Mana Academy students are of mixed El Salvadoran and Samoan heritage. Through a jointly written poem, the duo is exploring what it means to be biracial and some of the difficulties that they say have come along with it.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s talked about a lot because there’s rarely a lot of people like us, especially mixed with two completely different cultures,” said Julia Herrera Falute, 16. “We just want to share our story. ... And we just hope that if there are any other kids (that are) mixed-race like us, hopefully it gives them hope in their life just to not give up on your culture and just to embrace it no matter what people say.”

Tali Herrera Falute, 15, said creating the poem “was a hard process because we’re sisters and we argue.” But when the sisters perform the poem, the passion and the connection between them is palpable.

“No matter what we do, we are sisters and we are mixed — no matter what people say about us,” Julia Herrera Falute said.

The sisters are among a few dozen high school- and college-aged youth who are exploring the power of telling their own stories during a five-week intensive arts program.

Angeles Pacheco Robles listens as Kathleen Williams makes a comment as they join Hawaiian poet Kealoha Wong at an after performance party at the West Valley Performing Arts Center on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Wong conducted a five-week intensive arts program for high-school and college-aged youth with a special invitation to Pacific Islander, BIPOC and LGBTQ youth from Salt Lake County. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The “We Are Telling Our Stories” artists-in-residence program is a collaboration between the Center for Documentary Arts and University Neighborhood Partners. It connects youths with Hawaii’s first poet laureate, Kealoha Wong, who has worked with the students to develop and share their own stories through performance using voices, bodies, classmates, props and other theatrical tools.

The program culminated in a performance last week at West Valley Performing Arts Center for the participants’ families and friends. However, organizers plan to continue it next year.

“We’re really focusing on what you could refer to as marginalized voices in the community and youth that doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re being heard,” said Masha Shukovich, with the Center For Documentary Arts. “But everyone is really welcome, who feels speaking in their own authentic voice is something that they feel a desire to engage with. So, it really is about authentic voices, about authentic stories.”

The program seeks to provide a space where youths feel welcome and celebrated, and to create a lasting impact that can serve as a foundation as the students move onto adulthood, careers and possibly higher education. At the end of the day, it’s a way to undo some of the historic erasure of west-side stories and experiences, said J.R. Martinez, with University Neighborhood Partners.

“West side, as someone who’s grown up here, has always been code word for many other things, right, and has been often criminalized or not a place where people have had the opportunity to tell their stories in their way and in their voice and about what is important in their lives,” Martinez said.

Emma Helai, Julia Herrera-Falute and Agnelli Hernandez-Ramos laugh as they join Hawaiian poet Kealoha Wong at an after performance party at the West Valley Performing Arts Center on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Wong conducted a five-week intensive arts program for high-school and college-aged youth with a special invitation to Pacific Islander, BIPOC and LGBTQ youth from Salt Lake County. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Finding their voices

The participants — many from families of color — did not shy away from difficult topics in their storytelling. Some touched on issues like belonging, cultural appropriation, racial injustice, culture wear, mental health and police violence in their communities.

“These are the topics that the kids are passionate about. When it comes down to it, passion overrides everything. If you’re passionate about something, then it’s about OK, let’s help you say it in a way that’s most effective. They really just brought their energy, they brought their ideas and their words, and we’ve just been here to support them,” Wong said. “My favorite part, by far, is seeing these students blossom and really just find what they want to say and what their voice resonated with and to see them just sort of like bring it to life.”

For Agnelli Hernandez-Ramos, 17, performing her poem “You’re being dramatic” is empowering. The piece is a rebuttal to the times Hernandez-Ramos’ concerns and those of larger Latino communities have been downplayed and dismissed.

“It’s like I’m calling people out, in a way, and as I’m calling people out, I’m talking about these different events that have happened here in the U.S. Like, I talk about shootings, murder and the whole immigration problems we have,” she said. “I guess you can say I’m like a voice for them, but also a voice for my ethnicity.”

Jessica Begay, a 22-year-old Diné, or Navajo, graduate student at the University of Utah, thought of all the reasons she belonged in Utah when she began writing her piece for the program. She hopes those who listen or read the poem, which she called a homage to her ancestors, are inspired to acknowledge that Native American people have always been here. Writing and performing the poem, she said, has been both a source of healing and personal growth.

“My eyes have been opened up to new possibilities, new opportunities of expressing who I am,” she said. “I feel like it becomes really difficult to accept yourself when you’re often always turned away or you’re always told no. Being reminded of all the strong people who had to get through even more troubling times than myself, I decided that it’s not all that much and just keep going. ... It really brought me back to remembering why I really am here and what story or whatever I meant to do while I’m here.”

Emma Helai, 17, said while she has always been comfortable wearing cultural clothing, she often felt judged for wearing it outside her home. She hopes her poem gives people a better understanding of what culture wear is and the significance behind it. The program has helped her feel more confident.

“Being Micronesian, when I came to this class, I saw that there were other Pacific Islanders and they kind of made me realize that being who I am is not a flaw of mine; it’s something that I should be able to take and cherish and share with other people,” Helai said.