CRESTVIEW — In a swirl of colorful native dress, festive displays of cultural artifacts and Hispanic groceries, and amid the aroma of south-of-the-border cuisine, the Crestview High School cafeteria transformed into a fiesta celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month Wednesday evening.
Spanish department students and faculty worked for hours ahead of the evening event to decorate the room in a colorful montage of flags representing several Latin American nations flanking a large Old Glory. Tables had festive tablecloths with informational placards about various Central and South American nations.
The Spanish Club was instrumental in many of the preparations, teacher Elizabeth Rivera-Oquendo said.
“All the students have provided food, so this is a good experience for them,” she said. “Some have had the opportunity to watch someone cook authentic Hispanic food. I am very excited for them.”
Student Spanish Club president Missy Frame said that producing the annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration is an educational experience for club members, some of whom neither study nor speak Spanish nor have Hispanic heritage.
“We do a lot with studying the different cultures and all the different countries and their different foods,” Missy said. “You don’t have to be in a Spanish class to be in the Spanish Club. We have a lot of fun — and we eat a lot of great food!”
The Spanish Club prepared two plates of flan, tres leches, “and a couple other dishes,” Missy said.
Setting up a Hispanic groceries display, Publix manager Tim Bryant said the food’s ready availability reflects an influx of Latin residents.
“We knew six or seven years ago we would have to switch out some of our food for the growing Hispanic population, and we’re glad we did,” Bryant said.
Many Seventh Special Forces Group (Airborne) members have Hispanic heritage, Crestview High Principal Bob Jones said, noting the school’s increased Hispanic student population.
“It has sure changed a lot in the 25 years I’ve been in the school system,” Jones said. “We have certainly become more culturally diverse.”
“The spirit of the United States is reflected in its Hispanic heritage,” Spanish teacher Leah Merritt said.
“Hispanic people are very friendly and our hearts are always open to share our lives with other people and we are very passionate about everything in life,” Rivera-Oquendo said.
Some of that passion reflected in the diversity of dishes on a long buffet table, representing multiple Latin American cultures. Like many of the nearly 150 attendees, Crestview senior Darius Perry and junior Dylan Stephany dug into foods ranging from beans and rice to crisp quesadillas and several salsa types.
“This is good stuff,” Dylan said.
“The taco dip was the best,” said Phillip Adams, an eighth grader at Davidson Middle School who attended with his mom, Crestview High guidance counselor Michelle Adams.
Latin folk dances
A program of Latin folkloric dances included a demonstration by Eglin Salsa Dancers.
“Some Latin dances are definitely influenced from Spain,” Rivera-Oquendo said. “We have also the influence of the Indian culture, either Mayan or Aztec, but also we have influence from Africa, so we have the addition of three cultures blended into one.
Boricuando, a Puerto Rican musical heritage group, invited students and teachers to the front of the room to join in several folk songs native to their island.
“Basically, Puerto Rican music is all about the fun,” bandleader Geraldyn Martinez said. “But we have the romantic side, also.”
Following a selection of native Panamanian dances, featuring Indrany and Ted Pado and friends dressed in colorful native clothes, even Big Red Machine members got into the act. Calling themselves “Los Tres Amigos,” trumpeters Alex Messick, Nick Woelfel and Josh Williams produced their horns and gave a spirited trumpet serenade that rapidly increased in rhythm while the crowd clapped along.
Guest speaker, retired 21-year U.S. Air Force veteran David Triana, emphasized Hispanic immigrants’ integration into American society and culture. During his career, he was one of 25 Spanish-speaking Air Force air traffic controllers, resulting in postings to U.S. airfields in many Spanish-speaking countries.
“I am a proud American who was born in Mexico,” Triana said. “I consider this great land my home. This is a nation that has given me the opportunity to be all that I can be. If you want to succeed in the U.S., you can.
“Be proud of your culture,” Triana said to his audience. “But I think it is more important for all of us to be proud Americans.”
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