Activities include enjoying ethnic foods, dancing and getting together for fun

Photo by Nacho Moya
Local artist Nacho Moya teaches painting classes virtually with the theme of Hispanic Heritage.

By Vanessa Soto

Vanessa Soto

Many South Valley residents take great pride in their Latino roots and show it off by annually celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. With COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place requirements, they have been forced to find unique ways to safely do so this year.

“It’s a way for us to celebrate all the Hispanic cultures. It’s another reason to party,” said Albert Marques, a Spanish and music instructor at Gavilan College.

This year Marques celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month with a home-cooked dinner that included Spanish and Mexican ethnic foods.

“For me I always try to do things in this month that are close to my culture. I think a lot of that would deal with maybe some special occasions, to make certain foods, certain drinks,” he said. “My father’s family is from Spain and my mom’s from Mexico. On my dad’s side, we like to do a paella. And then on my mom’s side we’ll do some special Mexican dishes like aguachile.”

The coronavirus crisis makes it difficult for his family to be able to gather to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

“Normally, we would definitely have a big fiesta in the house,” he said. “We would celebrate, but with COVID, we’re keeping it on the down-low right now.”

About 33 percent of Morgan Hill’s population is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census. In Gilroy, 58 percent are of Hispanic ancestry.

Latino people make up a major component of growth of the American workforce. Hispanic Americans are the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the U.S. and represent more than 59 million people. Latinos are a major component of growth of the U.S. workforce and contribute $2.13 trillion in GDP to the American economy. Many proudly serve in the military. They work as members of law enforcement and in national security. Half of the border patrol agents are of Hispanic ancestry. Many also work in government, in health care as doctors and nurses, as educators in schools, in the media as journalists, and other careers.

More than one in four public school students in the United States are Latino. The ratio of Latino students is expected to rise to nearly 30 percent by 2027. About 19 percent of all college students in America are Latino, the second largest racial or ethnic minority group enrolled in higher education.

Marques believes National Hispanic Heritage Month is a special time. Many Latinos take part in activities that show their contributions to the South Valley and help people of all cultures understand the wide-spread diversity in the region through music, dance performances, cuisine, history talks, and other activities.

“For a lot of Hispanics here, it’s just a chance for them to reflect on who we are, where we came from, where our parents come from, and what our parents have done to make a better life for us,” Marques said. “That’s probably the biggest thing for the people of (South Valley).”

Usually students in Marques’ Spanish language classes at Gavilan will do assignments during National Hispanic Heritage Month to celebrate and learn more about the history and culture of people who come from Latin American countries. Many of his students don’t know the difference between Cinco de Mayo, a festive time in the United States but an obscure holiday in Mexico, and the Sept. 16 Mexico Independence Day commemoration.

Before the pandemic, the instructor would dedicate a day where the class discussed the differences of each holiday and their significance to Mexican culture.

Regardless of whether they immigrate to the United States or were born here, people of Hispanic ancestry contribute much to the culture and economy of the nation, he said.

In Mexico, for many families the opportunities to financially improve their lives can be scarce. The rich tend to stay rich and the poor stay poor because of the social constraints. So many people in poverty look to the north and see a land filled with hope, Marques said

“A lot of those people come to America with the dream of a better life,” he said. “The Hispanic man or woman that can open his or her own Hispanic restaurant or maybe start a business (here), they would not have those opportunities in Mexico. I think that a lot of them come here with that dream to have that great life.”

Gilroy-based artist Nacho Moya, a resident of Morgan Hill, often shares with South Valley residents the respect he holds for his Latino, Hispanic and part-Native American heritage through his paintings and other artistic works.

“I am just proud to be Hispanic and to be able to represent my Hispanic community and the community,” Moya said. “I represent my Latino community with pride. I always carry that honor with me of being Hispanic, and I am proud of it everywhere I go.”

Moya has been recognizing the contributions of Hispanics to the history of the United States, this year’s national theme, through paint party events.

He did one with the Santa Clara Library District where he led a group of residents to create a painting inspired by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. During September, he taught students art at paint parties based on the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Hispanic spiritual event which is celebrated Nov. 3 by many people of Latin American cultures.

“This month I have been hosting events that are free for the community, but with Hispanic themes,” he said. “Sometimes I mix, like I did a mini Frida Kahlo painting, that represents my Hispanic heritage and the American. I like to mix my heritage in my paintings and the American too. I grew up here in the United States.”

Moya invites people from all over the world to join his virtual classes and asks for a donation or a tip through Venmo or PayPal. He encourages people who are interested in attending these online classes to visit his Facebook page for a schedule.

One of these events done through the library district taught how to paint calla lilies, a popular flower grown throughout Mexico.

He also likes to teach his students how to paint art that represents familia (family), an important aspect of Hispanic culture. Another artistic theme that represents his heritage is amor eterno (eternal love).

“It’s about two skulls holding each other’s hands and it’s really beautiful,” he said. “It’s about a couple who are already dead, it’s like Dia de los Muertos. Amor eterno means that even though you’re dead you’re still together. That’s my belief and that’s my heritage.”

Many people of Latino heritage learn about their culture through their parents and grandparents. Among them is Alexia Jaines, a nursing student at Gavilan College.

“I’m just happy to be Hispanic, and I’m really happy my family was able to teach me about my culture and show me around Mexico before the pandemic hit,” she said.

Jaines believes that it is mainly the older generations who keep the culture going by trying to teach the younger generations about its various components such as art and history. Unfortunately, the pandemic and social distancing orders is keeping people from coming together to watch the ethnic dancers in colorful clothes and the Latino parades the South Valley’s Hispanic community usually holds.

National Hispanic Heritage Month means much to many of the residents of Morgan Hill because the city encourages the celebration of its population’s cultural diversity, said Chiquy Mejia, the youth development and outreach coordinator for the city of Morgan Hill.

An immigrant from Venezuela, the vivacious woman regularly teaches the popular Zumba dance as an instructor for the Centennial Recreation Center in Morgan Hill. Many join her energetic classes throughout the years for the benefits of the fast-paced exercise movements it requires of participants.

“In the Zumba class what I do is I bring the Spanish culture, music, movements, and teach my students the proper salsa steps,” she said. “Merengue, bachata, salsa, cumbia, and cha cha cha. Those are the main roots. I teach them and I tell them, OK, let’s do a cumbia from Colombia and Mexico together. Let’s go to Brazil. Let’s go to Spain. I give them a little connection from the music to the country.”

In July, Congressman Jimmy Panetta, who represents parts of Gilroy, co-sponsored legislation to establish a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino on the National Mall. If built, it would be dedicated to honoring the contributions of Latinos to the United States. The House of Representatives passed this legislation July 29.

Mejia said she has hopes this project will one day be built and she and other South Valley residents can eventually visit the museum in Washington, D.C.

“Latinos are a large population who add a lot to the economy of this country,” she said. “Sooner or later we are going to get to where we want to go.”

Guest Column