Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
While acknowledging the work of those who came before them, members of Battle Creek’s Latin American Heritage Initiative also recognize that future success and prosperity will depend on educational opportunities for their youth.
As part of the organization’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month this year, they awarded 12 computers to Latinx families in Battle Creek and eight scholarships, valued at $500 each to Latinx high school seniors attending high school at one of 12 school districts in Calhoun County or already attending college, says Lucy Mosquera, a founding member of the Initiative and co-publisher of Nueva Opinion
the Spanish-language newspaper based in Battle Creek.
The scholarship recipients are: Yahir Soto, Battle Creek Central High School; Tiffany Carhuayo, Kellogg Community College; Sullay Garcia, Michigan State University; Sharnell Fabian Romero, Battle Creek Central High School; Rosa Hernandez, Battle Creek Central High School; Macarena Ortiz-Sosa, Battle Creek Central High School; Leslie Gonzalez, Western Michigan University; and, Janhing Sanchez, Western Michigan University.
“One focus in our organization is to promote education. We want our Latinos to pursue higher education,” Mosquera says. “As a Latina woman, and as an immigrant, I would like to see immigrants educated and in high positions. I want to see Latinos as lawyers, doctors, and engineers.”
Interested students were asked by the BCLAHI to write an essay about how Latin culture has changed their lives and made them the person they are today. Mosquera says 18 essays were received and the winners of the scholarships, which may be used at a four-year college, trade school, or community college, were announced during a Facebook Live event on Friday.
To provide additional support to students and their families, the Battle Creek’s Latin American Heritage Initiative decided to give away computers. Mosquera says there are Latinx families in the community who don’t have the financial means to purchase a computer, which has become a necessity during the pandemic, and the on-again, off-again pivots to a virtual learning format.
“Many of the parents don’t have laptop technology at their house,” Mosquera says. “It’s good for them and their kids to be connected with the schools.”
Lucy Mosquera, a founding member of the Battle Creek Latin American Heritage Initiative and co-founder of Nueva Opinion, a Spanish language newspaper based in Battle creek, addresses the audience during a Sept. 25 gathering at Friendship Park.
Drop boxes placed inside Hispanic-owned businesses in Battle Creek and Willard Public Library enabled families to fill out a paper form if they were interested in entering drawings for the computers. There also was a form they could fill out on the BCLAHI Facebook page. Mosquera says 24 families filled out the forms to receive one of the 12 computers during giveaways that began shortly after the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed Sept. 16 through Oct. 16 and will continue until Oct. 8.
Funds for the computers and the scholarships were provided by sponsors including the Battle Creek Community Foundation, PNC Bank, Café Rica, the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Battle Creek Public Schools, and Battle Creek Unlimited. The sponsors also provided funding to bring in Latinx musicians, authors and artists who participated in the local Hispanic Heritage Month activities.
However, sponsorship dollars stretch beyond Hispanic Heritage Month, says Jesús M. Grillo Trujillo, co-publisher of Nueva Opinion and Mosquera’s husband. Some of these dollars are allocated to “help people within the Latino community who are behind on utility or rent payments. These are people who didn’t qualify for stimulus money. We have some funds available to help them with these payments.”
The BCLAHI does not have nonprofit status or an annual budget and the BCCF serves as its fiduciary for the distribution of the money it receives from various funders, Grillo says. In addition, the BCLAHI operates under the Encourage BC! Program which is part of the BCCF.
A meeting leads to a mission
In 2004 Nueva Opinion partnered with the BCCF to host the city’s first Latino Fiesta to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, Grillo says.
Six years ago, the BCLAHI officially formed and began an annual celebration during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Attendees at a Sept. 25 outdoor celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month at Friendship Park were able to sample foods such as tacos served up at this taco bar.
“We always do a kickoff fiesta and presentations with singers and speakers,” Grillo says. “We want to show how diverse we are and get Latinos connected with the general community in Battle Creek. We want to maintain our heritage here in Battle Creek. The idea is to have all of the community at large know that there is a Latin community in Battle Creek that is always giving to this community.”
Mosquera says the Latin community includes people from countries such as Colombia and Argentina and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, each of which have different customs and cultures that the BCLAHI works to make sure are represented in their celebrations, but also throughout the year.
In previous years, they have brought in Flamenco dancers, Capoeria groups
, and Latin Salsa dancers. They also have had an exhibit of clothing and cultures at the Art Center of Battle Creek.
This year, they partnered with the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival to offer a free, outdoor concert featuring Cuban pianist Nachito Herrera, at Leila Arboretum. Herrera, who specializes in Cuban jazz, played on the noontime jazz series at The W.K. Kellogg Foundation during the 2016 Gilmore Piano Festival.
Herrera’s most recent performance was one of several events that were part of the BCLAHI’s Hispanic Heritage Month lineup.
“We are very fortunate,” Mosquera says. “Even Kalamazoo doesn’t have a celebration like this.”
National Hispanic Heritage Month's roots are in a weeklong observance in 1968. Twenty years later, President Ronald Reagan expanded it to a month. The kickoff date is the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico celebrates its independence on Sept. 16, and Chile marks its independence on Sept. 18.
Over the years Tristan Bredehoft, the son of a Costa Rican immigrant, says he thinks the Hispanic community has assimilated into the Battle Creek community and does feel accepted. Bredehoft, the co-founder of Café Rica and co-owner of Breaking Bread, says he is seeing more resources available in English and Spanish.
“I would say for me, being the son of a Costa Rican immigrant, that being able to use this organization and initiative to help bridge the gap between Spanish-speaking, Hispanic, and Latinx to the English-speaking community is creating bonds that will build a stronger community,” Bredehoft says.
Bredehoft became a member of BCLAHI earlier this year and has helped the organization with events and marketing.
Michelle Salazar also joined the organization this year. Salazar, Housing Intake Specialist for the city of Battle Creek, previously worked at VOCES as its Housing Resource Liaison. She says she will continue to provide interpreting services for the city’s Latinx community, something that she says is not being made readily available.
Based on the many community collaborations with Latinx community members that she has been involved in, Salazar says they view Battle Creek as a place that they can come to and put down roots. “But, finding jobs and applying for benefits can be a bit of a struggle because there is only one resource in town and that is VOCES,” she says. “Whenever they go to the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) office, they don’t feel like anyone makes the effort to communicate with them.”
Salazar says every organization should be giving non-English speakers the ability to understand the resources available to them and access them.
“A lot of people don’t think about that and they have to be reminded,” she says. “It can be embarrassing and a struggle and take up a lot of time.”
Bredehoft says, “We need to find a way to get people who are bilingual into these organizations like DHHS, or BCCF or the city of Battle Creek.”
Grillo says these are among the issues the BCLAHI is working to address. “Our mission is to maintain our heritage while being part of the Battle Creek community and show people that we are here,” he says. “We bring passion and ideas about how we can help our community to thrive and succeed.”