The Hispanic Advisory Board of Suffolk County celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month via Facebook Live, a change from the food and music-filled celebrations of previous years, on Oct. 14. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the board centered the celebration on honoring members of the community who gave back during this critical time, titling the event “Hispanics Working Together.”
The Hispanic Advisory Board is one of the six advisories under the Office of Minority Affairs, which is under Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone. The board is made up of 20 board members, representing towns on Long Island, who meet up on a monthly basis to discuss educational programs and advocacy initiatives for the Hispanic community, Chair of the board, said Priscilla Zarate.
“We want to be able to have that Hispanic voice in the decision making of anything that impacts the family, the community,” said Zarate. “Hispanics have impacted American society with their work, their knowledge and influence on American culture by bringing in the diversity, the language, the food, the traditions and the music.”
Supporting the civil service office hiring Hispanic officials, like Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Retha Fernandez, creating the Unified Task Force to challenge the discrimination minorities face from real estate agents and securing increased financial support for language accessibility in the Burial Assistance Program website are among the initiatives that were fully appreciated and driven by the Hispanic Advisory Board she said.
The Facebook Live celebration was devoted to recognizing those who risked their lives and even got sick with COVID-19, yet overcame it and continued to support the community, utilizing their financial resources to provide food, medical and health information to the community, she said.
In the years prior, the board celebrated at the Suffolk County Government Office, gathering children, business owners, teachers, educators, police officers and other members on Long Island who would participate in traditional Latino dances and songs.
Dorothy Santana, founder of Latina Moms Connect, is among one of the honorees in the Hispanic Advisory Board after her organization was recognized for their active involvement in providing critical support to communities that were hit hard during the pandemic.
“Through facilitated dialogues, group activities and large events, we promote Latino culture,” she said. “We really celebrate culture all the time, we don’t just keep it to one month.”
Though the pandemic made it difficult to stay connected as a group, Santana said that they worked to address gaps in the Latino community by starting the COVID-19 Response Effort to distribute medical supplies, food and information on how to stay safe.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to do [the event] virtually,” said Santana. “That always takes away from that human connectedness and that sense of cariño and calor that you have with one another when you come together with people.”
Still, Santana said that she is “excited that they’re still offering a space, virtually, for our county to recognize the Latino leaders in our community who have made great impacts on Long Island.”
Secretary of the board, Lucia Elam, said that the celebration is important for spreading awareness about Hispanic culture as well as the diversity within Latino groups.
“I am Puero Rican and Italian,” said Elam. “Hispanic Heritage Month means a lot to me and my family.”
Javier Kinghorn, Vice Chair of the Hispanic Advisory Board and Chair of the Latino Leadership Council of the Patchogue, also led the virtual event, introducing Latino leaders, including Assemblyman Phil Ramos, Legislator Samuel Gonzalez and Interim Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Betty A. Rosa.
“I don’t look at [this month] as just being a Latino or Hispanic’s time to celebrate us, but to celebrate our country as a whole and to remind everybody – Latinos and non-Latinos alike are the strength we have culturally, economically and politically,” said Kinghorn.
The Hispanic population on Long Island have suffered some of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases and, according to health experts and state officials, one of the leading causes is because many Hispanic residents do not have the option to work from home.
Kinghorn said that it is encouraging to be a part of strong community organizers who work to address the issues minorities on Long Island disproportionately face.
“The challenge we have some time is anti-immigrant sentiments from the federal government, so we’re really trying to make great efforts to educate the public,” he said. “This is beyond Latinos.”