Local speakers share culture and experience at first-ever Hispanic American Heritage Celebration

From September 15 through October 15, National Hispanic Heritage Month is meant to shine light on the Latin and Hispanic cultures and pay tribute to the generations of people who helped build and shape America as a nation.

Beginning in 1968 with President Lyndon B. Johnson as Hispanic Heritage Week, it was later extended to a full month by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Since then, it has raised awareness and celebrated Hispanic and Latin Americans and can now be found being observed in communities that have never observed it before.

Thelma Castillo moderated the Hispanic American Heritage Celebration and is the CEO/President of the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce. In Port Huron, according to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a Hispanic population of approximately 1,800 people, or 6.2% of the community’s nearly 29,000 residents. Through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion led by Haran Stanley and Jessica Brown, St. Clair County Community College (SC4) is working to spread awareness about these cultures and those who are often marginalized in society.

Recently, SC4 held its inaugural Hispanic American Heritage Celebration in the Fine Arts Theater on Oct. 7. Thelma Castillo, CEO/President of the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce, moderated the event which featured live music from Detroit Latin Jazz band PanaMO, Latin American food prepared by Doña Marina’s LLC, and a panel of local individuals who shared about their culture and experience of being Hispanic in America.

Heather Fagan, owner of Doña Marina’s LLC, was one of the panelists at the event. A Nicaraguan-American, Fagan was born on a U.S. Navy base and raised in Miami, Florida until the age of 10 when she and her family moved to Michigan. Today the Port Huron resident is the President and Co-Founder of the Seed & Soul Society, a local nonprofit that empowers local communities toward sustainable agriculture and mutual growth.
Heather Fagan is the owner of Doña Marina’s LLC as well as President and Co-Founder of the Seed & Soul Society.
Being a first-generation Nicaraguan born in the U.S., Fagan says her family’s move was due to difficult times in their home country.

“My family moved here during the regime of the Sandinistas to make a better life for themselves,” she says. “My mom and dad met in California and the rest is history.”

When it comes to race relations and how the Latin community is viewed in the U.S., Fagan believes that much of the hate or intolerance stems from ignorance and racial propaganda.

“We have often heard the narrative that immigrants are here to hurt us, or other things that are not true and harmful to the way our people are perceived in this country,” she says. “It’s fear mongering, which paints a lot of really good people here with good intentions in an unpleasant light and that isn’t fair. I do believe that race relations are improving, there is still a lot of work to do, but we have to get past the stereotypes painted by the media.”

One of her favorite aspects of her culture is the close-knit family dynamic.

“I loved the parties when I was little,” Fagan says. “Everyone would put on their best clothes and we would have these big parties with people dancing and listening to music, but you’d always have to have dinner beforehand because we wouldn't eat until eleven or twelve at night due to all of the festivities.”

Maggie Toole, Business Development Officer for Michigan Women Forward, was another panel speaker during SC4’s Hispanic American Heritage Celebration. A resident of Burtchville Township, Toole is very active in the community and serves on the Blue Water Chamber of Commerce’s Business Education Committee.

Second-generation born, Toole identifies as 100% Mexican with all of her grandparents being originally from Mexico. Growing up in Port Huron, Toole also spent time in the northern part of Florida for a short period during her childhood years.
Maggie Toole is the Business Development Officer for Michigan Women Forward.
“I went through a lot of racism living in Florida,” she says. “There were certain places that we couldn’t stop at or visit, such as certain gas stations or parts of town because of our skin color.”

Many of the panelists spoke about these types of experiences that our own community is not exempt from. When it comes to her own experience, Toole says that she experienced barriers not only from those outside of her culture, but also within the Hispanic and Latin communities against their own.

“My dad didn’t teach us the language [Spanish] with the intent of keeping us from being ostracized and so that we could assimilate into society, and to protect us from the racism that they had experienced living here,” she says. “Many of us in the Hispanic culture were raised this way and although they meant well it causes certain members of our own family to disown us or treat us differently because we don’t have the strong cultural influences or because we don’t speak our native language.”

Toole says she loves her culture, especially the tight-knit family structure. One of her favorite celebrations is Día de los Muertos, commonly referred to as the Day of the Dead. During the two-day Mexican holiday, families honor their loved ones who have passed away through a celebration of life highlighted with costumes, parades, and food.

“It stirred up feelings of pride and love for my culture hearing all of the stories and experiences our panel shared,” Castillo says, a Mexican-American and Croswell resident. “The way to get rid of discrimination and ignorance is through education and sharing our experiences with others who may not be aware of certain aspects of our culture. Even though we are considered a minority, we are just regular people like you who love our families, contribute to society, and want the best for our neighbors.”
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Read more articles by Harold Powell.

Harold Powell is the Community Correspondent for The Keel and owner of Phantom Pen Media offering multimedia services to individuals and organizations across the Blue Water Area. He is a current board member for the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and the most recent Chamber Choice recipient at the Eddy Awards. Harold is an avid volunteer for the YMCA of the Blue Water Area as well as Bridge Builders Counseling & Mentoring and in his spare time, enjoys spending time with his son, writing and listening to music, playing video games, and not folding laundry.