Where Cultures Collide: The Intersection of Tradition and Appropriation

"Where Cultures Collide" explores the intersection of Southern California's diversity through five short documentaries created in a collaboration between KCETLink and the documentary department at New York Film Academy. 


From traditional Arabic wedding celebrations to Polynesian tattoos, "Where Cultures Collide" explores how Southern California residents are incorporating cultural traditions into 21st century life. What's gained by reaching back to your roots? Is anything lost when customs are updated for the modern day?

A 2015 article in the Los Angeles Daily News addressed immigration in Los Angeles, noting that the amount of people moving to the city from foreign countries has been in decline since the 1990s and that immigrant communities in the area are long-established. Moreover, according to the Los Angeles Times' "Mapping L.A. Project," the median age in the city's 264 neighborhoods ranges from early 20s to late 40s. In other words, it's a city heavy on Generation X and Millennial residents, two generations with increased ethnic diversity, according to Pew Research Center. In that respect, it's made the region ripe for cultural hybridity.

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"I find music is one of the only things that breaks down walls and borders in between cultures that have any kind of hate for each other," says Berge Sahakian in the "Where Cultures Collide" segment on "Transcendent Music." Los Angeles is a global center for dance music and Sahakian is part of a community of music producers who are intertwining traditional music with modern, electronic beats. For him and others, one of the instruments that comes into play is the duduk, an ancient, flute-like instrument of Armenian origin. To them, the sound is reflective of their own culture. But, are there any controversies over turning a traditional instrument into a sound for modern dance music? Director Ashley Harris explores these questions while taking viewers inside the world of L.A. DJs and local dance party SBCLTR to see how traditional music is influencing contemporary music producers.

"Transcendent Music"

Cultural hybridity also impacts gender roles, something that plays out in the sports world as you'll see in Guangli Zhu's short "Muay Thai." Known as the "art of eight limbs," Muay Thai engages fists, knees and so much more. The fighting sport originated in Thailand, where it's immensely popular and has gained momentum across the globe for its melding of martial arts and boxing moves. But, Muay Thai isn't traditionally a sport in which women can participate. Jackielou Butan, a young, female fighter, is pursuing her dream in spite of this. "People will comment, 'Oh, she's good, for a girl,'" Butan shares, adding, "For my opinion, you're good no matter what. It doesn't matter if you're a female or a male."

"Muay Thai"

In Southern California, traditional spirituality is also crossing ethnic lines. Camilla Borel-Rinkes looks into this in her short, "Santeria." Santeria's history goes back to Africa. Its roots are in the spiritual practices of Africans who were brought to countries like Cuba and Brazil as slaves and evolved and spread with time and migration. In the U.S., the religion has felt its share of prejudice and controversy, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court case. Here, Santeria priests Charles Guelperin and Ysamur Flores Pena discuss their practices and dispel some of the myths surrounding the religion. In the process, they also illustrate how interest in Santeria is changing. "At the beginning, when I opened, maybe 90 or 100% of the clientele was Latino," says Guelperin. Now, he explains, his clients are from many different backgrounds.


What does it mean for people to adopt cultural traditions that aren't a part of their own heritage? Certainly, that's a question in the tattoo world, where some markings are specifically tied to cultural rituals. In "Polynesian Tattoo," director Carolina Sosa follows Southern California artist Sulu'ape Si'i Liufa. Tattoos are an ancient custom in Polynesian cultures used to signify rites of passage and milestones in life. Liufa specializes in Polynesian-style tattoos largely sticking to the traditional practice. Although of Samoan heritage, not all of Liufa's clients are. So, what are the implications of a non-Polynesian person wearing artwork so steeped in history?

"Polynesian Tattoo"

Weddings are yet another example of where cultural hybridity in Southern California can be seen. Pew Research finds that 17% of newlyweds in 2015 had married someone of a different ethnicity. That statistic is higher in Southern California, where interethnic marriages made up 22% of newlyweds in Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim, 25% in the Inland Empire and 27% in San Diego. In "Zaffa," director Kristin Lydsdottir goes inside one interethnic wedding ceremony to see how a traditional Arabic wedding procession known as the zaffa is incorporated into the festivities. Filled with music and dance, the procession can include elaborate costumes as well. It's a custom with a long history in Arabic cultures that has made its way to weddings in Southern California.


We're influenced by each other. In a region with so many different communities living together, cultural hybridity is inevitable. We share and learn from each other and use it to shape and reshape our own identities.

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