Flag raising celebrates town’s diversity

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange’s Hispanic Heritage Month activities continued with the raising of all 21 flags from Spanish-speaking countries in front of Town Hall on Monday, Sept. 25, followed by flamenco music from Grammy Award-winner Hernan Romero’s group. Residents gathered on Main Street to cheer on the countries they represented as the flags were placed next to each other on the steps of the building.

Organized by Deputy Mayor Rodolfo Rodriguez and the West Orange Hispanic Foundation, the flag raising was part of a slate of events held to honor Hispanic Heritage Month; other events including a joint art show at the library and the West Orange Arts Center, and a street fair along Watchung Avenue next week.

“The United States has welcomed all the countries in the world, and everybody is here,” Rodriguez said at the event. “And in the schools in West Orange we speak more than 50 languages, which brings us to what we’re celebrating today.”

Rodriguez thanked Mayor Robert Parisi for his support throughout the years, then repeated his message in Spanish.

“Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish,” Parisi joked at the event. “We are all brothers and sisters in this community and we celebrate that tonight. We celebrate that regardless of where we come from, and regardless of where we live we all want the same things. We want safe streets for our children. We want nice parks for our children. We want schools for our kids to have good opportunities and we want a nice place for us to live and raise our families, and we’re grateful that so many of you have chosen to make West Orange your home.”

Ysabel Strowe, a founding member of the West Orange Hispanic Foundation, quoted civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, saying: “The preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for the people of other cultures.”

“This is why we thank West Orange and the people of West Orange for not only supporting the West Orange Hispanic Foundation and all of our endeavors, but also for opening their doors for a multitude of cultures and allowing that everyone feels at home here and that we are part of one community,” Strowe continued. She also repeated her words in Spanish.

Also in attendance at the event were state Assemblyman John McKeon, a former mayor of West Orange, and Ana Lorena Siria de Lara, of the El Salvadorian Consulate in Elizabeth.

“We’re proud to have been invited to this event,” Siria told the West Orange Chronicle in an interview at the event. “This represents a huge community and it’s an honor to represent ourselves.”

Walter Antonio Gonzalez Castaneda, the vice consul, echoed her thoughts, saying that it is important to hold events representing the Hispanic communities in the United States.

“The (Hispanic) communities are fast-growing in every town,” Castaneda told the Chronicle. “Especially for El Salvador. It’s important to have events like this.”

A representative of each Spanish-speaking country was on hand to place their flag on the steps of Town Hall, with Argentina kicking the ceremony off and Venezuela closing it out. Special acknowledgements were made for Mexico, which suffered a 7.1-magnitude earthquake on Sept. 19, and Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria and which is not expected to regain power for months. Donation tables were at the event to collect money for relief.

“This was a wonderful event, one of the best I’ve seen outside this building,” Rodriguez told the Chronicle in an interview at the flag raising. “It’s a way of uniting the community for a month out of the year. And there are people that are here who represent huge communities.”

Rodriguez said that while each Spanish-speaking country has its unique communities, they do still have similarities that are celebrated together during Hispanic Heritage Month.

“We all have little rivalries with each other,” he joked. “This is uniting all 21 (countries). It’s really been working since we started the foundation. It gives everyone a way of bringing their country here. We get a little taste of their home in West Orange.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic