Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hispanic Celebration Begins

The opening night program Thursday (Sept. 14, 2006) for Hispanic Heritage Month featured personal comments and anecdotes by Latino Plainfielders before Union County College Provost Jose Adames gave an overview of immigration.

“The Latino Presence in Plainfield” was dedicated to the memory of the late City Council President Ray Blanco, the city’s first Latino member of the governing body. Blanco died July 28 at age 50 of an apparent heart attack. Upon being chosen council president for 2006, Blanco had set a demanding standard of performance for both the council and administration. His special concerns were the city’s youth, its cultural life and responsive government.

The celebration runs through Oct. 14 and includes a screening of Blanco’s film, “Black and White in Exile,” on Oct. 12. The full schedule may be seen at or on fliers available at the Plainfield Public Library.

Among Latinos who spoke about their personal experiences in Plainfield, Latin American Coalition President Flor Gonzalez had a word of caution for politicians who might want to exploit Latinos. With newcomers here from 23 Spanish-speaking countries now, she said, “It’s important for politicians to understand we are human beings.”

Ivonne Martinez read a statement prepared by Fanny Jaramillo, who had laryngitis. Jaramillo traced Latino activism back to the 1970s, when the Spanish Community Organization of Plainfield served Latinos’ needs. She said since the closing of SCOP more than 20 years ago due to “external forces,” Latinos have become divided. The original influx, mostly from Puerto Rico, was followed by immigrants from Central and South America.

“By unity, we will rewrite the history of Hispanics in Plainfield,” she said. “Ask every day, what have I done for the community.”

Eva Rosas, director of the city’s Bilingual Day Care for the past 28 years, said the agency has kept its word to serve families and children.

“We have a lot of excellent success stories,” she said.

Rosas said when the agency reaches 30 years of service, she wants to bring back its graduates, who now number more than 5,000 individuals.

Christian Estevez said he was born and raised in Plainfield, but said, ”My story begins in the Dominican Republic.”

His grandparents’ success there was marred by having the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo in charge of everyone’s fate and the family fled to Puerto Rico, then to the Bronx before deciding to move to “the country.”

“The ‘country’ was Plainfield,” he said.

Born in Muhlenberg Hospital, he was taken home to nearby Lenox Avenue. Both he and his sister attended the Bilingual Day Care Center.

Raised in a union family, he grew up participating in strikes, parades and pickets, he said.

In 1974, most of Plainfield’s 1,500 Latinos were Puerto Rican and schoolmates assumed he was also. Estevez said his mother told him he was Dominican.

Living mostly among African-American migrants from the South, he said, “We did things as a community.”

Estevez said in school he learned a lot about African-American heritage and struggles. In college, he took up Latino studies.

“That’s the way that we come into partnership with each other. We are all proud of our heritage,” he said.

Now a union organizer, he has his own house and family in Plainfield.

“My dream has come true,” he said.

Adames began his remarks by saying, “The history of immigration is a drama repeated over and over again.”

He said Plainfield is a microcosm of national change that will result in more and more Latinos in the population, both from immigration and from a higher birth rate.

“New immigrants arrive every day,” he said, noting many come not only from the same country with family help, but even from the same neighborhood or block in their native land.

Adames referred often to statistics complied by the Pew Hispanic Center (see The shifting demographics have caused alarm in some communities. He said there is a need for a “new language and dialogue” to promote understanding.

After tracing some of the local Latino institutions and leaders over the years, he said, “There is a need for an oral history of Latinos in Plainfield. There is also a need for unity.”

Assemblyman Jerry Green, who also heads the Democratic Committee in Plainfield, listened attentively to the entire presentation and stayed on for the reception afterwards. After Blanco died, some Latinos urged the Democrats to choose a Latino successor on the council. Estevez applied for the vacancy, but the Democratic City Committee selected former city administrator Harold Gibson.

Both the politics and the impact of proposed redevelopment on Latino merchants have become issues that Latinos are now organizing around. The 2000 census found that one-quarter of the population in Plainfield is Latino, but observers feel the number is now one-third or more.

--Bernice Paglia


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