Hidden History: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – This month we are celebrating the Hispanic Heritage of West Michigan. We are highlighting various stories of a variety of Hispanic cultural influences and events that have impacted West Michigan for decades.

Health Care

To begin, we met with Exalta Health who lives up to their saying “Our community. Our health.” by exemplifying their goal to reach families that do not have health insurance in the community. People that are served by Exalta Health are those that are under served.

Laura Vander Molen, D.O. Medical Director at Exalta Health explained that they are there to care for the whole family by offering behavior, spiritual, primary and the new addition of pediatric health care.

“It’s really exciting because we can see the whole family unit because family influences what is done with health care. It’s too easy now days to make blanket statements, we need to listen to people, we need to hear each other’s stories.”

Laura Vander Molen, D.O. Medical Director

Dual Immersion Programs

Dual Immersion Programs are offered for children who love to sing, dance and thrive in learning in a bi-lingual environment. There are so many educational benefits to these immersion programs and that’s where Hands and Feet Family Music steps in. Lessons are taught at the YMCA of Barry County by Lee Sanchez.

Lee Sanchez began Hands and Feet Family Music three years ago. Sanchez uses the “Sing and Dance With Me” curriculum for families. The curriculum has authentic Spanish music and lessons. It’s a great way for bi-lingual families to bond with their children starting as early as infants. Only a handful of teachers are trained in this program. This is the first and only center to be accredited in West Michigan to teach dual immersion.

Why get your family involved in a dual immersion program? The first 6 years of a child’s life is when their brain absorbs the most information. The brain can soak up new information the best if the teachings are done in a lighthearted way. It’s even more encouraging to the students if their family gets involved in the program. Starting children in a dual immersion program at a young age ensures that teaching will stay with them for a lifetime.

 2020 Census

According to Experience GR, Latinos are the largest minority group in Grand Rapids and represent 16% of the population in the city. That number is expected to rise and the best way to track that is to partake in the 2020 Census.

Many minorities are afraid to fill out a Census because of the citizen question, but this year’s census has changed. There will not be a citizen question on the 2020 Census. Adnoris “Bo” Torres, Executive Director of the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, says a lot of work went into to “unringing” the bell that the citizen question has been removed from the 2020 Census.

Torres is concerned that if the residents in Grand Rapids are undercounted for this census, the needs of the community will not be met. He also states that the Hispanic Center will serve as a Census Hub and people can fill out their forms there and get their questions answered as well.

A lot of residents in Michigan do not realize that the US Census count helps fund programs in public schools, especially those with minority groups. The census is important for communities that are under counted.

Kathi Harris, Census Coordinator City of Grand Rapids, says that communication with the community is key to removing the stigma around the census. To do this, Census Ambassadors will be sent out to meet with different leaders in the community to help spread the word of the change and to establish trust factors.

Reuben Ndjerareou is a Census Ambassador who keeps FAQs census flyers in his car because he never knows when he will meet someone who needs information about the 2020 census. He’s excited to hear about people’s fears and then assure them and combat their fears with answers.

Cesar Chavez

In 1990, our very own Eva Aguirre Cooper had the privilege of interviewing Cesar Chavez on the steps of the state capital in Lansing at a march to protest the treatment of Hispanic farm workers.

“Things change gradually. We’ve got to go out and work in the community to bring about change. Without that we cannot do it and the point is let’s unite within the community.”

Cesar Chavez

Hispanic Festivals in West Michigan

Communities across West Michigan come together to celebrate and share their Hispanic culture and in Grand Rapids. Each year there are two festivals that do just that, the Hispanic Festival and Fiesta Mexicana that showcases that West Michigan is proud to celebrate its diverse cultures.

Gabriela De La Vega, President, Mexican Heritage Assoc. “I’m sure that all these generations are so proud of what they’ve done in the past.” 

Margaret Vega, daughter of one of the festival founders, shares that the festival started in 1969 during turbulent times and how her father, along with Maurila Blakely Ortiz, felt that this was a way to celebrate diversity with food and cultural music.

“I believe this was a very revolutionary idea in 1969 and since then it has evolved as many more voices have come forward, it still is about the same things, celebrating each other and being educated on what each part of the world, specifically the Spanish speaking part, has as part of their culture.”

Margaret Vega

“We try to educate, advocate and empower the Latino community of West Michigan. The Hispanic Festival is a historic festival that celebrates their culture, food and music. We strive to exemplify what Latino culture is from a real cultural perspective. We can show this by speaking our language, enjoying each others company, and focusing on family. That really reflects on what the culture is about.”

Adnoris “Bo” Torres, Executive Director of the Hispanic Center of West Michigan

Dual Immersion Schools

We hear about the popularity of Spanish Immersion schools. In Grand Rapids they have dual immersion schools where they can learn two languages at one time.

Carlos De La Barrera, Principal Southwest Community Campus, “What makes this school unique is that we teach Spanish and English and we start with 80% Spanish from K-1st grades then we move to 50/50 Spanish and English by 4th grade. Research shows that by 6th grade, students will perform better than average from dual emersion schools than at regular schools.”

Neticia Madrigal 2nd Grade Teacher explains a typical day in the classroom. “Our day begins with 30% English for instructions. Then for reading, writing, social studies, science and math, all of those are in Spanish. There are times when their vocabulary is built through different movements, activities and songs taught in the classroom to encourage motivation.”

J-Lin Tamminga, Parent and Bi-lingual support teacher, says that being bi-lingual herself is a huge benefit, but being able to learn the cultures of others and to appreciate that and to be able to learn and respect the differences that are among our students and teachers.

The main goal is to have fun and learn both languages.

Finding our roots

Mid-Michigan may not be first area that comes to mind when talking about the Hispanic culture, but as WLNS found out, not only did Latino and Hispanic roots get planted there long ago, they’ve been impacting our area for generations.

Diana Rivera of Chicano Latino Studies and MSU Librarian displays an archive of Hispanic history directly connected to West Michigan. It’s packed of pictures and details of the pioneer families who became the roots of Hispanic Culture in the greater Lansing area back in the 1940s and 1950s.

These first families of the Latino community, mostly from Mexico and Texas, came to work and found it in the fields. Many were then persuaded to settle permanently in Michigan due to the prospect of higher pay and less discrimination.

“They found a different vibe from what they came from. I know that was true for my family.”

Diana Rivera of Chicano Latino Studies and MSU Librarian

Later, Hispanics started working for other industries, such as the railroad and manufactures, something Hispanic Activist, Lorenzo Lopez knows well. His mother had a powerful political influence over the Mid-Michigan Latino community. She also started the Cristo Rey Catholic Church to satisfy social needs. She was also the first Latina lady on the Lansing Housing Commission and served for 25 years.

The Hispanic population still remains small in Mid-Michigan at about 8% but has grown and spread to the point of pure progress.

“What’s happening is a transformation of our community from the agricultural area, from the factory area, what my father was, to the colleges, universities, leadership, doctors and lawyers. That’s the transformation of our community and that’s where our community is headed.”

Lorenzo Lopez

To help symbolize this success, Lopez helped lead the way to highlight this importance of this roadway in the Hispanic community now officially known as Cesar E. Chavez Ave. It was a strip of street that Hispanic pioneer families lined up and firmly planted Hispanic roots in the heart of Michigan.

Lopez says this is what helps make this state so great.

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