WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Hispanic Foundation celebrated its first anniversary with a party at Elks Lodge No. 1590 on July 30.
The event gathered members of the township’s growing Hispanic population for an evening of food and musical performances by several acclaimed Latin artists. It all culminated with the honoring of nine West Orange community members who have either proudly represented or helpfully supported the WOHF in its first year. Honorees included Mayor Robert Parisi, Assemblyman John McKeon, Council President Victor Cirilo, Board of Education President Laura Lab, Friends of the Library President Gerald Sweeney, Christian Mateo, Marcus Monroe, and West Orange police officers Jason Padilla and Herbert Granados.
Above all, the occasion was a chance to recognize what the WOHF has accomplished so far.
“It’s only been a year and we’ve done so much — it’s incredible (to see) all the things that we’ve been doing,” Rodolfo Rodriguez, president of the WOHF and deputy mayor of West Orange, told the West Orange Chronicle in a July 28 phone interview. “We have been really moving along.”
Since officially launching last summer, Rodriguez said his organization has held multiple events, including a health fair and two Latin nights. It also obtained nonprofit status and engaged in many charitable pursuits, such as donating Christmas gifts to West Orange children and raising money for the sick in Ecuador. Most recently, he said the foundation learned of a Honduran woman living in Orange who had so little money that her baby was sleeping in a box. So it asked people for help on social media and was immediately inundated with money and supplies, including three cribs.
One of the foundation’s biggest services has been hosting guest speakers at its monthly meetings to discuss issues of interest to the township’s Hispanic population. Rodriguez said the WOHF has brought in everyone from immigration experts to health professionals during the past 12 months. He said it has even had local figures such as Parisi and West Orange High School Principal Hayden Moore discuss politics and education, respectively.
The WOHF offers these lectures in order to help immigrant Hispanic community members integrate into American culture, Rodriguez said. The president said life in the United States is much different than the countries from which many local immigrants relocated, and they need to learn what is acceptable here. That especially includes sending their children to school and only accepting welfare money if they really need it, he said. Above all, he stressed that they need to get used to hard work.
“I believe that it’s important that people know: to succeed in life, you’ve got to work for it,” Rodriguez said, adding that this is how he found success after immigrating from the Dominican Republic years ago. “Nothing is for free. (Welfare) may help you for a little bit, but it is not going to help you for the rest of your life.”
Supporting West Orange’s Hispanic immigrants is also important to WOHF Secretary Malia Morales. In fact, Morales said her goal is to make the organization into a “one-stop shop” of beneficial resources. And she said the foundation is already well on its way to this, answering questions, referring people to affordable facilities and connecting them with community members who can help them. She said the group also helps many people with the citizenship process.
Morales, who moved to the United States from El Salvador in 1985, said she appreciates the chance to give back to those in need after establishing herself. After all, she has not forgotten how difficult relocating to a new country can be.
“We want them to prosper in this country,” Morales told the Chronicle at the party. “We want everybody to have an equal opportunity. But you can’t sometimes because you lack information on where to go for basic essentials like finding a job or learning the language or getting a driver’s license. These things are a challenge when you’re brand new to this country.”
The WOHF is also helping the Hispanic population by providing English classes in conjunction with the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. The Rev. Miguel Hernandez, the foundation’s chaplain, said he teaches the lessons using images and numbers so that non-native speakers can more easily understand the meanings of English words. This method is apparently successful — Hernandez said some of his students are reporting that they now can have conversations in English, and a few have even felt proficient enough to stop taking the course.
This pleases Hernandez, who still remembers how ESL classes helped him learn English years ago. Today being able to speak the language is as essential as ever, he said, as his students seeking jobs know very well.
“At some places when they get hired, (employers) prefer that they speak English,” Hernandez told the Chronicle during the event. “You have to work with English-speaking customers. So they see that as a huge need.”
But the WOHF does not only benefit the township’s Hispanic community. Cirilo, the foundation’s sergeant-at-arms, said it helps West Orange as a whole showcase its rich diversity. It also lets non-Hispanics share in the Hispanic culture, and that benefits the entire township, he said.
“It helps us come together as a community,” Cirilo told the Chronicle during the party. “In communication, there’s strength. And that starts with understanding our cultures and our backgrounds.”
The event was indeed attended by many non-Hispanic residents who spoke highly of the WOHF. Before being recognized, Sweeney told the Chronicle that the foundation has become a great organization for the township in its brief existence. He particularly praised Rodriguez for his energy and work ethic, which he has gotten to know well through the WOHF president’s support of Sweeney’s Friends of the Library.
Parisi said he has also been impressed by the fact that the WOHF has accomplished so much, which he pointed out is not easy to do in such a short time. But what he respects the most is that West Orange’s Hispanic population finally has a group of its own, thanks to the foundation. And just as the township’s numerous other cultural organizations have demonstrated, the mayor said having a place to celebrate one’s heritage is tremendously meaningful.
“It’s important for any town, especially a town as diverse as West Orange, to let everyone feel they have a place where they belong,” Parisi told the Chronicle prior to being recognized by the foundation. “The Hispanic population in our town has grown over the last couple years, and now they have a voice and they have a place where they can share ideas and where they can get governmental support and guidance from Rodolfo and some of the people who they’ve brought in. But more than anything, I think it gives people the opportunity to feel that they belong in this community.”
Photos by Sean Quinn