WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Hispanic Foundation kicked off what it hopes will be years of service to the township with an inauguration party Sept. 5 at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center.
Though the organization officially launched in May, interim President Rodolfo Rodriguez said the succeeding months have largely been occupied with completing the necessary legalities for becoming a recognized entity, including registering with the state, establishing bylaws and setting up a bank account.
Now that this has been completed, Rodriguez said the party was a chance to introduce his group to the public in a way he knew would resonate with the Hispanic population.
“With the Hispanic people, you may have a meeting for something and they may not come, but you have a party and everybody will be there,” Rodriguez told the West Orange Chronicle in a Sept. 3 phone interview. “It’s just the way we are. It’s our culture.”
That culture was on full display at the party, with Hispanic and non-Hispanic attendees alike able to enjoy live music performed by merengue, bachata and mariachi bands while sampling food sold by local Hispanic restaurants.
Celebrating the Hispanic ethnicity in such a fashion was one of the key reasons for the creation of the WOHF, executive board member and West Orange Township Councilman Victor Cirilo said, pointing out that the township’s fast-growing Hispanic population finally has its own group on par with other cultural organizations in town such as the West Orange UNICO and the West Orange African Heritage Organization. That is important, Cirilo said, because every nationality should honor its heritage.
“In order to move forward, we really need to know where we came from and who we are,” Cirilo told the Chronicle in a Sept. 3 phone interview. “As we assimilate into American lives, we can’t forget where we came from and who we are. That’s what makes diversity special.”
The WOHF has already taken steps to both preserve Hispanic culture in West Orange and integrate immigrants into the community, sponsoring the Rev. Miguel Hernandez’s weekly ESL classes and Spanish religious services at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. And they plan on continuing to do so. In fact, Hernandez, who serves on the WOHF Executive Board, told the Chronicle at the event that when his ESL class starts again later this month he will use a formal workbook to enhance his teaching of elementary English “survival skills.” He said that he is even looking into offering a high school equivalency program to his students.
And that is not the only way that the WOHF is supporting Hispanic immigrants. Interim Vice President Ysabel Strowe said the organization wants to hold an informational session with an immigration lawyer who can answer questions and dispel any misconceptions, such as the notion that anyone undocumented risks being deported if they go to the police for help. In the meantime, Strowe said foundation members will also help immigrants by answering questions and directing them to the proper forms they need to fill out.
As a Dominican immigrant herself, Strowe said she can certainly empathize with those who have come to the United States seeking a better life. Now that she has found one in West Orange, she said it means a lot helping other to do the same.
“It’s a great feeling because when I first came to this country, I said, ‘When I’m able to help the Hispanics coming here, I will,’” Strowe told the Chronicle at the event. “It feels like a big accomplishment. I’m able now to help others, and (the WOHF) is a great opportunity to serve.”
But the WOHF is not just about serving the Hispanic community. Rodriguez said its next major gathering — a health fair co-sponsored by University Hospital of Newark and the West Orange Health Department, which will be held Sept. 13 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Town Hall parking lot — will offer free medical screenings to residents of all ethnicities. Additionally, he said his group is planning to collect toys that will be given out to township children for Christmas.
Also among the WOHF’s principles is a commitment to support all local businesses in town, which was one of Rodriguez’s platform points when he ran for mayor in 2014. Downtown West Orange Alliance Executive Director Megan Brill spoke to business owners about the benefits of joining the alliance at a recent meeting, and the foundation plans to continue offering opportunities, such as the Sept. 5 party, for merchants to sponsor.
For all of its efforts, Rodriguez said the WOHF has received an overwhelming amount of support from the larger community — more than he has ever experienced before. Yet nothing would have been possible without an effective executive board, and the interim president said it feels wonderful to be aligned with six other members so dedicated to making the foundation a success.
Fellow executive board members Amalia Morales and Catalina Contreras agreed, telling the Chronicle that it took a lot of hard work just to establish the foundation. But they got it done thanks to what Morales called the “unmatched” commitment they all showed for the cause. Looking forward, Contreras said the board intends to maintain that level of dedication as they continue working together.
“Union is strength,” Contreras said at the event. “As long as we’re united, then everything will get accomplished.”
With the executive board in place, the WOHF is now hoping to gain new members — even more than the approximately 100 it currently has. And it succeeded at the party, with several residents signing up to join. One such resident was Raphael Pastor, who told the Chronicle that he and his wife were actually not familiar with the organization until learning about the party. But, after hearing about all the WOHF is planning to offer, Pastor said they were eager to participate and lend their own abilities as teachers in any way they can. After all, he said, a community can only grow with help from its residents.
“Rather than close the doors and not know your neighbors, sometimes it’s best to open your doors and embrace your neighbors because they’re going to be your closest allies,” Pastor said.
Jose Preciado of R&G Custom Carpentry, Roofing and Siding attended the event as both a sponsor and proud Hispanic West Orange community member. Preciado told the Chronicle he was happy his business had the opportunity to sponsor the party and that he would be interested in working with the WOHF again. He added that he hopes the foundation continues to grow, because a united Hispanic population could greatly benefit West Orange.
Township officials also expressed support for the WOHF during the party. Council President Jerry Guarino told the Chronicle that the WOHF can expect his assistance whenever they need it because he believes the group can do a lot of good for West Orange. Not only is it organizing the Hispanic population in order to contribute to the township, Guarino said, it is also educating people about the Hispanic culture, which can have a positive effect on West Orange.
“When you have an organization like this — where you can come together and talk about beliefs and likes and dislikes — you break down barriers,” Guarino said at the event. “It’s about time that we accept people for who we are. We’re no different.”
Mayor Robert Parisi, whose appointment of Rodriguez as a deputy mayor acted as a catalyst for the WOHF’s formation, said he was impressed to see all that the foundation has accomplished in such a short period of time. Above all, Parisi said he is pleased to see that West Orange’s Hispanic community now has an organization in which to celebrate its heritage since one of the most important aspects of being an American is honoring one’s heritage. And he encouraged everyone to consider joining.
“I think there’s a big value to celebrating where we come from and what our backgrounds are, and doing it within the context of the greater community,” Parisi told the Chronicle at the event. The many cultural organizations in town, he said, “are becoming an important part of the community. And it’s important that people remember where they come from, be proud of that and be proud of our place in not only West Orange but the great American melting pot.”
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