Meet the speakers: A look back at SC4’s Hispanic American Heritage Celebration

What makes the United States special and unique is that it is a cultural melting pot, in which individuals from a variety of cultures and backgrounds have helped shape the landscape.

Since 1988, Hispanic Heritage Month has been annually observed in the U.S. from September 15 to October 15, evolving from its original introduction as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. According to the U.S. Census, Hispanic typically refers to an individual of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or any other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.

Thelma Castillo moderated the Hispanic American Heritage Celebration and is the CEO/President of the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce. This year, St. Clair County Community College (SC4) commemorated its second Hispanic American Heritage Celebration honoring Hispanic and Latino cultures.

Attendees were treated to food and live entertainment, provided by Nicaraguan restaurant Doña Marina’s LLC and live music performed by the renowned Latin jazz ensemble, PanaMO. The event also featured a panel of speakers from the Blue Water Area, engaging in discussions about their diverse cultures, personal experiences, and challenges.  

Moderated by Thelma Castillo, President of the Blue Water Area Chamber, this year's panelists included Doña Marina’s owner Heather Fagan, along with Jessica Totty, President of the newly-established Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan (HASM), and several of its members including Iris Santillano, Irma López, Jesus “Jesse” Castillo, and Eunice Castillo.

A nonprofit organization located in St. Clair County, HASM seeks to preserve and honor the traditions of Hispanic culture through unity, celebrating their diverse backgrounds as they address the challenges faced within the community.

Iris Santillano.

Iris Santillano, a member of HASM and a featured speaker at SC4’s Hispanic American Heritage Celebration, was born in Puerto Rico. At the age of 12, she relocated to Port Huron with her parents, briefly residing in Pontiac before returning to Port Huron in 2009. Presently, she actively volunteers with SONS Outreach and serves on the Community Foundation of St. Clair County’s Scholarship Committee.

“Our parents and ancestors went through a lot in their lives, but they still pushed forward to give us a better life than what they had,” Santillano says. “So to me, it’s about keeping our traditions alive as well as teaching and letting our children know what it is to be Hispanic.”

Santillano is bilingual and has spent many years serving as an interpreter in Oakland County. As a founding member of HASM, she says she is looking forward to making a positive impact in the community and helping the organization in any way she can.

“I’ll be more so the bilingual translator for our organization, but I am more than willing to serve in any capacity the organization feels I am needed,” says Santillano.

Irma López.

Irma López, who was born in Pontiac where she lived until the age of 12, is the daughter of Iris Santillano and also shared her experience at the event. The youngest member of HASM, López’s heritage and ethnicity is a blend of Puerto Rican and Mexican.

López says she believes more education would be a great way to build awareness and foster more widespread acceptance.

“I believe we should have programs or lessons that teach diversity in schools when our children are young,” López says. “Maybe if they share the truth about American history and how other cultures have been treated here historically, no matter how ugly, then we can have honest discussions that will lead to understanding and healing within our country.”    

The son of migrant workers, Jesus “Jesse” Castillo Jr. is proud of his Mexican heritage. In 1954, his parents settled in Port Huron where Jesus Castillo Jr. has lived and worked ever since.

A common theme among those in the Hispanic community is the emphasis on being a loving strong family unit, and Jesus Castillo Jr. says he holds that sentiment close to his heart.

“We really emphasize taking care of the elderly. They’ve been through a lot and have done the best they could with the sacrifices they have made,” he says. “We cherish and honor that because one day our time will come as well, so if we don’t teach our children then we will be in bad shape in the future.”

Jesus Castillo Jr. has been a key figure in the community as one of the founding members of the Hispanic Council which served the Hispanic community from 1993 until it disbanded in 2019. Prior to the Hispanic Council, he was a member of the former Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission which also provided the Hispanic community with resources and services along with events that celebrated the culture. Today, he is using his experience to help bolster the plans and direction of HASM.

Jesus "Jesse" Castillo Jr. and his wife Eunice Castillo.

Eunice Castillo, Jesus Castillo Jr.’s wife, is also Mexican and spoke of her experience and culture at the Hispanic American Heritage Celebration. She is one of the founding members of the Hispanic Council and is looking forward to the future of HASM.

Today, Eunice Castillo lives in Port Huron, but she grew up in the more rural area of Imlay City where she says there wasn’t much diversity. She attributes her resilience to having a strong family dynamic.

“I was teased by some of the other kids for being Mexican,” she says. “I haven’t experienced those types of incidents as an adult, but they definitely gave me an understanding that I was viewed differently as a child.”

With the holidays approaching, spending time with family is something that Eunice Castillo looks forward to as they celebrate and observe traditional Mexican activities with loved ones.

“During the months of October and November, Día de los Muertos [Day of the Dead] has become very popular in the community,” she says. “In the warmer climates, our community celebrates Las Posadas which is a more religious-themed celebration where we go from house to house from Dec. 16 until the 24th as a simulation of the journey Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem in their journey of giving birth to Jesus Christ.”
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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.