Oak Park celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month with fresh perspective

“Los Avengers” brought together all members of the community for healing, learning and celebration

by Hector Cervantes

National Hispanic Heritage Month lasts from Sept 15 to Oct. 15, and Oak Park residents celebrated its first official Hispanic Heritage Month with the community.

Oak Park’s history of systemic oppression, redlining and segregation with people of color has often created conditions that made people of color in the community feel unwelcome. However, officials in Oak Park said they have been working on turning this around to make a more inclusive community.

This celebration will now be an annual tradition and feature many events in which community members can reflect on Hispanic culture.

Danielle Walker, diversity, equity and inclusion officer, reached out to Hispanic community members to ask them to participate in planning the celebration.

Maya Puestes, a Broker Associate for Baird & Warner, Oak Park’s Public Library Latine Language and Culture Librarian Nora Sanchez, and Kribi’s Coffee vice president of business development Juan Muñoz served on the committee. Quetzali’s founder Alma Martinez and Oak Park Township’s Assistant Housing Specialist Yazmin Morales also were part of the committee.

Although there have been several, separate events for Hispanic Heritage month in the past, this committee took a unified approach to craft a comprehensive celebration. They were so committed they called themselves “Los Avengers.”

“I want to go ahead and thank the village for this opportunity because they have been agreeing with Los Avengers with the community members and every suggestion we have been giving them,” Morales said. “Dr. Walker is the DEI Director for the village, and she has been very supportive of all the different ideas that the committee has been bringing to their attention. This has been created because the village has been involved.”

Los Avengers put together a multilayered approach that included roundtable discussions, listening sessions and a party with an all-girl mariachi band.

Last month, storyteller, public theologian, feminist, and advocate Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez served as the keynote speaker for Oak Park’s National Hispanic Heritage’s Month at the Veteran’s Room at the Oak Park Public Library to discuss her works “For Brown Girls with Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts.” Mojica Rodriguez, an immigrant and first-generation student, combines education and narrative to help individuals comprehend the bigger forces at work, often known as systemic oppression.

“The whole community believed that she was the right person to come and share her knowledge in her book with the community as a whole,” Morales said. “There has been feedback that they really opened up for this event and it was very healing to people because they identified with the book of what she was mentioning in that book.”

The audience, she added, was largely female and Latinx – people who would identify with the book.

“They felt they were visible, as well and shared the same feelings and thoughts she shared in the book,” Morales said.

In the beginning of October, community members were invited to join the Village of Oak Park’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for a dialogue about the village’s language access needs at Village Hall and other municipal facilities.

“It was very dynamic because people were able to talk about the experiences after the panel discussion and it would be very different if there were different cultures at this event expressing their interest,” Morales said.

The ¡VIVA! Festival held on Saturday featured an all-female mariachi band and Peruvian folk dancers on the south lawn of Village Hall. Food, face painters, kid-friendly games and piñatas were part of the event.

“The performances represent the Hispanic community,” Morales said. “This group is the first all-female mariachi here in Illinois and it provides that warm understanding, not only for the Hispanic population — it is a community festival.”

And on Friday, the village will screen “Encanto” at 6 p.m. on the south lawn of Village Hall

“The movie Encanto, everything is tied together,” Morales said. “Everything is a representation of Hispanic culture and we wanted to go ahead so that they feel the awareness.”