Luis G. Pedraja
Hispanic Heritage Month is a celebration from September 15 through October 15 that commemorates and highlights the histories, cultures, and contributions that Hispanics have made to the United States and the rest of the world. What began as a week-long celebration in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson was enacted in 1988, becoming a month of recognition of the historic presence of Hispanics and Latinx in North America, and the contributions they have made. to the fabric of our nation. .
Last year, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at UMass Chan Medical School and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s celebration of “Esperanza: A Celebration of Heritage and ‘Hispanic Hope’, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Honoring and reflecting on the heritage and contributions of Hispanic and Latino citizens in this country is very personal to me, and one that I spoke candidly at last year’s event.
My life in this country began when I was a young boy who moved from Cuba to a low-income neighborhood in downtown Miami. As a child, I thought of America as a mythical place across the water filled with wonders and opportunities where dreams would come true. I soon realized that for many the barriers were insurmountable, not everyone was welcome and many were not treated fairly. Not only was there a language barrier, but there was also a prejudice that made me question my place in this country. Came here owned and not owned. In a country that loves our food, our music and our culture, our people are not always welcome and are often seen as outsiders and a threat.
Still, my parents wanted a better life for me, and bringing me to the United States offered more opportunities like a quality education. My parents instilled in me the importance of education. They reminded me that no matter what hardship or discrimination I endured, education was something that could never be taken away from me. Education was a way to stand up and break down the barriers of systemic racism.
I talked about all of this in my keynote address a year ago. Higher education has allowed me to succeed and persevere, but the unjust socio-economic problems that my family and I faced when we arrived in this country continue to plague our society.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (July 2021), people of Hispanic and Latino descent are the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority, comprising 18.9% of the nation’s total population. Yet our community is still struggling to have a seat at the table. In Massachusetts, Hispanics/Latinx still lag behind in academic achievement, face discrimination in housing and employment, and have higher incarceration rates – all of which have led Massachusetts to be ranked the worst state for Latinx in the country just before the pandemic. Equity and inclusiveness remain elusive; however, there are signs of positive change.
As we celebrate the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans who have enriched and bettered our society this year, I can’t help but think of some of Worcester’s Hispanic and Latino leaders, such as Dr Matilde Castiel, Worcester Health and Social Services Commissioner; Gladys Rodriguez-Parker, Senior District Representative for U.S. Representative James McGovern; and Mary Jo Marion, assistant vice president for urban affairs and the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University. These powerful women have brought a voice of hope and empowerment to the Hispanic/Latin community that emanates across the state. They made a difference that benefited our community as a whole.
Today, Worcester sees other Latin American Hispanics taking on leadership roles. Recently, Eric Batista was appointed Acting City Manager, the first Hispanic-Latinx person to hold this leadership position in Worcester government. Batista came to this country from Puerto Rico as a young boy and attended public schools in Worcester before becoming the first in his family to attend college. In 2012, he began serving as a project manager under then-City Manager Michael O’Brien, working with area youth.
In late April, the Worcester School Board unanimously named Rachel Monárrez as the new Worcester Public Schools Superintendent. Monárrez has a long and rich experience as an educator and has dedicated her career to social justice and equity for all students. With 43.1% of Worcester Public School students identifying as Hispanic or Latino, choosing Monárrez is a powerful statement for a community that has so often been marginalized.
We need to pave the way for future generations to believe that they can be anything and do anything, just like those incredible Hispano-Latin men and women.
On October 19, Quinsigamond Community College will host the 37th Hispanics Achieving and Celebrating Excellence Youth Awards. This annual event recognizes the achievements of Hispanic youth in areas such as academics, the arts, athletics, community service, leadership, and political/civic engagement. There, young people will have the chance to share their experiences and see and hear from those in the community who are making positive changes.
So, perhaps a story like my upbringing will be a thing of the past, as we move towards a more inclusive future – a future of hope, promise and fairness.
Luis G. Pedraja is president of Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester.
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