The Hispanic League is celebrating a milestone anniversary.
Twenty years ago, the organization began when a group of local people came together to hold a small street festival called Fiesta!
Like Fiesta! – which now draws thousands of attendees each summer – the Hispanic League has grown in size and scope since 1992.
About 1,300 active members and volunteers help the organization carry out its mission – improving the lives of Hispanics and Latinos while promoting multicultural understanding. Along the way, the League has also been able to educate the broader community and break down cultural barriers.
“There were two misconceptions: one was that everyone moved here from Mexico, and the other one was if we wait long enough they’ll go away,” Executive Director Mari Jo Turner said, recalling some of the community’s reactions to the burgeoning local Hispanic population.
Turner said Fiesta! – which showcases the dozens of nations in the Spanish-speaking world – was envisioned to help breakdown some of those stereotypes.
Cristina Roche and her husband, Herve, attended the first planning meeting for Fiesta! She was charged with finding entertainers to perform at the event – a responsibility she held for many years.
“Somebody had the idea of let’s do a festival and share our culture and share our music and share our food with the local community,” said the Buenos Aires, Argentina native.
One small stage was all that was needed for the first Fiesta!, which was held on Trade Street. Today, Fiesta! acts perform on several sound stages scattered on and around Fourth Street in the heart of downtown Winston-Salem.
The League began its annual Spanish Nite fundraising gala soon after the first Fiesta! Proceeds from the event allowed the organization to provide scholarships to bright, college-bound Hispanic high school students.
“I had really been the one to shape the ESL program at Reynolds (High School) … I had all the ESL students and I found a lot of them had the grades to go to college but not the money,” said Dr. Joy McLaughlin, who helped to start the scholarship program.
McLaughlin said that one major problem was that non-citizens had to pay inflated out-of-state tuition at state schools, even community colleges. Hayluri “Luly” Beckles, one of the first two Hispanic League scholarship recipients, experienced that firsthand.
The Venezuela native said though she was in the country legally, she didn’t qualify for financial assistance because she wasn’t yet a citizen. She was paying for college out of her own pocket when she received the scholarship. It allowed her to go from a part-time to a full-time student.
“When I heard about the scholarship, I thought it was an amazing opportunity for students who wouldn’t qualify for any type of federal financial aid to be able to pay part of the cost for college,” said Beckles, who has since volunteered at the League.
Beckles, who works as a bilingual education consultant, has had a long educational journey. She first spent years learning to become proficient in English, and then there were numerous events in her personal life, including getting married and having three children, one of whom was killed by a drunk driver. She earned her associate’s degree from Forsyth Technical Community College in 2003 and her bachelor’s degree from Salem College in 2010. During that same year, she returned to the Spanish Nite gala to speak about her experiences and inspire that year’s scholarship recipients.
With the support of local businesses, the League awarded a record 31 $2,000 scholarships at its 2012 Spanish Nite gala. To date, about 180 scholarships – more than $325,000 worth – have been awarded.
The League has many other outreach programs, including Middle School Achievers, which provides motivational speakers and more to ESL students at seven local schools and monthly Hispanic Services Coalition meetings, which provide local Hispanics with information on relevant topics.
“It is an organization that truly works for the community,” said outgoing League Board President Maria Aristizábal, a native of Columbia.
While a Hispanic Services Coalition gathering educated attendees about the Deferred Action Program, a change in immigration policy made last year that helps undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, the League itself stays clear of political issues such as immigration.
Turner – who is the organization’s only paid employee – said the Hispanic League doesn’t advocate for immigration reform or any other political issue.
The public is invited to the Hispanic League Annual Meeting and 20th Anniversary Celebration. It will be held tomorrow (Feb. 1) from 6-7:30 p.m. at Allegacy Federal Credit Union, 1691 Westbrook Plaza Drive. For more information, visit www.hispanicleague.org.