By Michael Blanche
“Lazy,” “dirty,” “uneducated,” “job taker,” “illegal.”
Those words do not describe the Latino population in America, a hard working, vastly intelligent, compassionate, and imperative part of America’s success in the future.
Yet, Latino immigrants are often judged harshly by people that do not take the time to look at them as equals, because they were born in another country.
In spite of this bigotry, many Latino families have come here in search of a better
Such is the case for Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, and grandson of a Puerto Rican immigrant, who visited DCCC April 15 as keynote speaker for the second annual Latinos and Education Conference.
Rivera has been recognized by the White House as one of 10 national “Champions of Change.”
The conference has grown significantly in its second year. Last year the small auditorium sufficed; this year the large auditorium had only a few empty seats.
Organized and led by English Professor Fernando Benavidez, topics ranged from empowerment of Latino students to combating stereotypes and overcoming barriers that
Latinos have in continuing education.
Around 9 a.m., local Latino high school students, faculty and influential Latino people from the community were welcomed to the college by DCCC President, Dr. Jerry Parker.
English Professor, Liz Gray, set the stage for David Escobar-Martin, 2015 Montgomery County Poet Laureate to read some of his awarded works.
The poet held the attention of the young crowd by mixing languages and displaying an understanding of life within multiple cultures, through verses of poetry, saying, “Being Latino is much more than speaking the same language.”
The majority of attendees were high school students who were passionately addressed by Dr. Elizabeth Condé-Frazier, dean of Esparanza College at Eastern University. When telling of a particularly vivid encounter from her past, she illustrated the struggles she went through to earn an education, bypassing stereotypes to eventually acquire the position she is in.
“The global leaders of tomorrow, are you,” Frazier told the students.
She focused on empowerment of the younger generation, urging them to get access to resources and programs like dual enrollment, financial aid and mentoring.
Frazier also attempted to reach the younger audience members by saying, “Smart is not something you have, smart is something you become.”
Shortly after, Frazier joined a panel of Latino peers that included Abel Rodriguez, a professor at Cabrini College; Maria Sotomayor, Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition; and Steven Larin, Senior Director of Legal Services and Immigration Policy at the Nationalities Service Center.
The panel discussed how to strengthen their community through higher education, types of discrimination Latinos face, and how to search for and finance college tuition. Sotomayor touched on undocumented access to resources as well as the emotional effects of legality for people without representation.
“Find a purpose that is higher than yourself,” Larin urged the audience. As someone that started in community
college, Larin also spoke about how many immigrants have similar experiences and the Latino community is not alone in regards to discrimination and difficulties.
After a short break, guests were welcomed back for the next panel which focused on stereotypes Latino people have overcome and still deal with.
The second panel of the day opened up with Dr. Iliana Pagán-Teitelbaum, assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American
Film from West Chester University, showing a couple of humorous videos that turned stereotypes of Latino people upside down.
Other panelists included Gil Gonzalez, senior designer and host of Entre Nosotros, Edwin Mayorga, assistant professor of educational studies at Swarthmore College, and Dr. Marissa Pereyra, associate professor of global languages from Immaculata University.
The professionals talked at length about social media and the power it has to affect change among societies, the lack of Latino representation in higher education, self-expression, and how to effectively address the needs of the Latino community.
Vouching for the power of self- representation in various forms of media, as a documentary filmmaker, Gonzalez directed the audience, “to tell the right story.”
“Being Latino is much more than speaking the same language.”
The third panel consisted of current DCCC students David Ordoñez, Jamily Anéas, founder of the Latin Flavor Club, Carla Yanes, and Latin Flavor Club President Vanessa Beltran-Vélez and Vice President Carlo Alcaraz.
The students described life at DCCC, whattheythoughttheirbiggestchallenges were, the importance of being bilingual for success in classes, as well as hopes for the future of Latino students at DCCC.
“Regardless of where you come from, the most important thing is how you see yourself,” Alcaraz said when asked about overcoming obstacles.
Following the morning presentations, lunch was served by the Latin Flavor club. Guests were treated to chicken or cheese quesadillas with refried beans and Spanish rice.
Rivera gave his spare time freely during lunch answering questions from students, sitting down for an impromptu interview and took photos.
Most high school students returned to their respective high schools before the last discussion, which featured Benavidez having an in-depth conversation with Rivera.
The dialog started off with commonalities. Rivera delved into his family history, that his grandmother worked in Philadelphia as a seamstress, getting paid 5 cents for each zipper she sewed to a pair of pants. She also would
not let her grandchildren speak Spanish around her and the young Rivera would translate for her everywhere they went.
Benavidez turned the conversation to focus on the secretary’s employment as the Superintendent of Lancaster County School District. While he was there, Rivera devised policies that helped increase graduation rates as well as levels of reading comprehension.
Rivera also started programs that gave students free eyeglasses, dental care, medical services, and breakfast; while at the same time increasing the fund balance for the school district.
While superintendent, Rivera was recognized nationally as a “Champion for Change,” by the White House and Lancaster School District was acknowledged by the Washington Post as one of 20 schools nationwide for academic rigor.
Rivera touched on national policy proposals like the DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors which grants temporary to permanent citizenship.
Rivera noted in regard to diversity, “People are no different.” He said to reach the levels of success that he has, he didn’t chase money, but did what he loves, teaching.
One point that Rivera emphasized was the difference between equity and equality and he clarified with a short story about three boys of different heights trying to look over a fence.
The tallest boy looked over without any help, but the other two needed crates to stand on. If the tallest boy kept his crate, it would be unfair to the shortest boy that needed two crates.
“Latinos live in the poorest communities,” Rivera reminded the crowd. At the end of the conference Rivera closed with a statement before Benavidez
took questions from the audience. “This is America,” Rivera said. “Immigrants have always come here for a better life, looking for better opportunities.”