Families of students in the Riverhead Central School District traveled to Phillips Avenue Elementary School last Thursday with arepas, empanadas, chilaquiles and other dishes reflecting their Latino heritage for the school’s first-ever Hispanic Heritage celebration.
The festive event followed a school day during which students learned about and created projects honoring Spanish-speaking countries, said bilingual teacher Ines Robinson.
“We had the students learn about different countries today through a gallery walk,” Ms. Robinson said. “They looked at artifacts and learned facts about the countries, their types of clothing and what they eat.”
Ms. Robinson was one of several bilingual teachers who organized the celebration, said principal Debra Rodgers.
“My teachers came to me and said, ‘What do you think about a dinner night, to bring the families in, and celebrate their culture, their food, their heritage?’ ” Ms. Rodgers said.
Samuel Feliciano, a bilingual second-grade teacher at Phillips, said the school’s 575 students are primarily of Hispanic descent. The teachers wanted to capitalize on Hispanic Heritage Month to teach students acceptance. He said that shortly after the plan was pitched to Ms. Rodgers, the school’s Parent Teacher Organization immediately wanted to help fund the event.
“The bilingual teachers, we decided we wanted to do something a little extra this year for Hispanic Heritage Month, being that this is the population that we’re serving,” Mr. Feliciano said. “Obviously, in a society where we want to have and teach inclusion and acceptance, the PTO got on board as well, they helped bring us in the band.”
Members of Mambo Loco, the band that performed at the celebration, are of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. According to its website, the Latin jazz group has been performing on Long Island since 2002.
The majority of Phillips students are ENL students, or English Language Learners. Ms. Robinson said she believes that the celebration motivated students to embrace their own ancestry.
“A lot of our students are ENL students, so a lot of our students come from different countries or have families who come from different countries,” she said. “They need to have this exposure to know that it’s OK to have a different culture outside of the U.S.”
Annaly Kess, a translator and school monitor at Phillips, said she moved to the U.S. from Ecuador about a year ago. Events like the celebration, she said, helped her to embrace her own heritage, too.
“We are all trying to make this school, and community, welcome to all countries,” she said. “You can see that everyone’s part of it. That’s why I feel comfortable to work here.”
Mr. Feliciano said celebrating Hispanic heritage is important so children understand that the negative circumstances present for some Hispanic immigrants are not universally experienced. He said he feels that the vast cultural differences in the U.S. are what make it beautiful.
“There’s obviously a political move, at least from our end, that seems to target the Latino population,” Mr. Feliciano said. “We want to say, ‘This is what you’re hearing in this news; this is not what you’re going to receive here. Yes, the world is sometimes crazy and blind to the bigotry and the segregation that happens in our own government policies.’ But within the walls of this school, within the walls of this community, if you will — we’re going to say, ‘You’re accepted, we love your language, we love your culture, let’s make it part of us.’ ”
See more photos of the event below: