Hispanic Heritage Festival is Saturday

Grady County’s many Hispanic citizens may share a common language, but as they hail from numerous countries thousands of miles apart, the similarities often stop there. Organizers hope an upcoming celebration will highlight the unique and endlessly varied backgrounds of all local Hispanic people, while tearing down generalizations and stereotypes bred from ignorance about this culturally rich and diverse population.
The first annual Grady County Hispanic Heritage Festival, coinciding with national Hispanic Heritage Month,  is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 17 at Roddenbery Memorial Library. The free event will feature storytelling, dancing, music, a native dress exhibition and other entertainment from local Hispanics representing more than 10 Spanish-speaking countries.
Denia Taylor, event organizer, hopes not just Hispanics, but locals of all backgrounds will attend in droves. “You don’t have to be Irish to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day, and you don’t have to be Hispanic to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month,” she says
Alaina Taylor, local sociology student and another event organizer, seeks sponsors for Saturday’s celebration. Attendees will also have an opportunity to donate money. All sponsorship and donation funds will go to the Roddenbery Memorial Library. Potential sponsors can call 229-977-7689 to learn more.
Rafael Frias, a Dominican Republic-native, and his wife, Stephanie, will perform music Saturday. Denia says though much of the music at the celebration will be Panamanian, all Hispanic countries are “rich in rhythms and music.”
“Each culture has developed many native types of music such as Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Cumbia, Tango, Mambo, Reggaeton, Ranchera and many more,” she says.
El Tarasco, a Cairo Mexican restaurant, will serve free food, though Taylor is careful to note Mexican food is just one of many very different styles of Hispanic cuisine.
“Hispanic heritage includes an amazing variety of foods. Learning and implementing this Latino cuisine can give your kitchen a new and unbelievable burst of flavor and enjoyment,” she says. A Panama-native, Taylor adds she never cooks with tortillas or jalapenos, prominent Mexican ingredients often wrongfully viewed as staples of all Hispanic cuisine by Americans incognizant of Hispanic diversity.
Food is just one aspect of Hispanic culture that often falls victim to ignorant generalizations by the average “American Joe.”
 Although Mexicans represent the largest Hispanic group in Grady County and throughout much of the U.S., that doesn’t mean all Spanish-speaking persons hail from the vast nation just south-of-the-border. Yet many people think just that, and Taylor and other Hispanics from Central and South America and the Caribbean are all-too-often called Mexican simply because they speak Spanish.
In fact, most Hispanics worldwide are not from Mexico. Spanish is the official language of 21 countries.
Even the Spanish language, brought to the Americas by explorers and missionaries from Spain after Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, is as varied as the Hispanic people.
Nearly all Latin-American countries have their own unique dialects. Taylor offers an example: “In Puerto Rico gnats are called ‘mime,’ but in Panama, we called them ‘huele-huele,’” she says.
In her job as translator and interpreter for Grady County Schools, Taylor sees generalizations and stereotypes affect young students perhaps most negatively, and she hopes Saturday’s celebration will help educate locals of all backgrounds on the richness of Hispanic culture, thus helping heal the wounds of young Hispanics alienated by misconceptions about their cultural identities.
“I tell you this from my heart. We need to educate people on different cultural heritages, because all these kids come to our school system, but they feel like they are lost and don’t belong here. If we don’t educate people on their cultural heritage they lose their identity. Some Hispanic children are too embarrassed to say where they’re from because their unique cultural backgrounds have not been celebrated. They then withdraw and don’t interact with others,” she says.
“There is a lack of awareness of Hispanics’ rich and unique cultural backgrounds. American kids are dealing with people from 18 different countries in the Grady County school system, and they need to know about all the different cultures. We want to serve Americans and let them know we (Hispanics) are culturally rich and are more than just what you see in Wal-Mart. We want to show them true Hispanic heritage and let them see a Hispanic person is more than just someone driving down the road without an American driver’s license.”
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics have the highest dropout rate of any American ethnic group. Both recent immigrants and Hispanics who have been in the U.S. for generations have high dropout rates, especially when they’re poor. However, poverty itself does not cause dropouts, Taylor says. Instead, most schools neglect Hispanic culture, so Hispanic students simply tend not to be inspired by their education.
“Educators can better serve their students when they learn and accommodate their cultural heritage and ways of interacting with others. When teachers make an effort to understand and value the cultures of all students, they are better able to develop meaningful and flexible teaching strategies that can help students achieve academic success. As the United States becomes a more culturally and ethnically diverse nation, public schools are becoming more diverse too. Schools must take a proactive approach to acknowledging diversity,” Taylor says.
“Learning about our culture and heritage is a way of learning about ourselves, an acceptance of oneself as an individual and of his or her people. Then we may educate the world, including our own communities, about ourselves. But more importantly, it will show us another way of seeing life and the world we live in now.”
Taylor added the Grady County Board of Education, in an effort to better serve its Hispanic students, has been very supportive of Saturday’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration, particularly Assistant Superintendent of Schools Martha Fowler, who has been key in helping organize the event.
Hispanics are also highly entrepreneurial, Taylor says. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2010 census statistics, Hispanic-owned business in the U.S. increased by 44 percent in the last decade, compared to just 14.5 percent in other groups.
She added Grady County annually hosts Mule Day, during which the historic beast-of-burden is lauded for its contribution to local agriculture, so “why shouldn’t we have a Hispanic Heritage celebration to honor the contributions of Spanish-speaking people to the economy?”
The rise in U.S. born Latinos and their increasing turnout in elections welcomes a new wave of Hispanic leaders across the country, she says. The Federal Election Commission estimates the number of registered Hispanic voters to surpass 20 million by 2012.
Hispanic Heritage Month is observed in the U.S from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 because five Latin American countries – Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua – declared their independence from Spain Sept. 15, 1821. In addition, Mexico, Chile and Belize celebrate their independence days Sept. 16, 18 and 21, respectively.
The celebration also includes the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, Oct. 12, 1492.
“My tremendous passion is to see the kids have more awareness of their own and others’ cultural heritages. There are too many Hispanic kids in this community for them to go through Hispanic Heritage Month without a salute or celebration,” Taylor says.

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