A month of celebrations of Hispanic contributions to the city begins Tuesday with the noon opening of an exhibit and time-line chronicle at the Central Library, where there was once little information.
“That’s one of the reasons our organization was formed,” said Casimiro Rodriguez, chairman of Hispanic Heritage Council. The history of local Hispanics was so hard to find he and other community leaders started four years ago collecting photos, news clips and recorded interviews and include that into the annual month-long commemoration.
“We wanted to institutionalize this like black history month,” he said. “We want our children to understand their roots.”
This year Hispanic Heritage Month, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 17, will include the library’s exhibit of elements from the new history archive, still being gathered by the Hispanic History Project.
“That will pretty much tell the story of Latinos in Western New York,” said Rodriguez, adding that a grant from M&T Bank will be used to digitize the growing collection into a repository at the library. “They didn’t have anything. Now, that tide is changing because of our involvement.”
While a complete calendar of the free happenings is posted at hispanicheritagewny.org, highlights include a History Museum presentation at 5 p.m. this Friday and an 11 a.m. Saturday Canalside celebration of Goya Foods and its Angola plant. Later that night, at 7 p.m., a salsa music program starts at Kleinhans Music Hall.
Things wind down with the placement of a plaque tribute to bilingual education pioneers at the Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15 and a Saturday, Oct. 17 finale with crafts and music at the Botanical Gardens.
For Rodriguez, community history is the most important part of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month.
“Latinos have been part of the fabric of Western New York since the late 1800s,” he said. “They came to this area, just like all the other immigrants, looking for the American dream.”
They come from Puerto Rico, as his family did, and places like Mexico, Columbia, Cuba and Spain.
While the local Hispanic community can sometimes seem invisible, the population in Buffalo is about 44,000 and the people deserve recognition. They fought in wars and became lawyers, doctors and teachers.
“They’re hard working people. They’re people with humble beginnings. People that want to make a difference,” he said.
Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since Woodrow Wilson signed off on Congressional approval in 1917.
Yet, Rodriguez, who was born here, can relate to immigrants.
The debates unfolding in presidential politics and overseas in Europe can make it is easy to lose sight of what people are really about.
“I feel sorry for the undocumented folks,” he said. “They have the same passion to try and secure the American dream. They feel trapped.”
His own father’s story is an example that could fit other nationalities.
Primitivo Rodriguez came to Buffalo in the early 1950s to pick tomatoes and other vegetables at local farms. He left the fields for a good factory job when he heard Bethlehem Steel was hiring.
Once he started working in the boiler room, he paid to have his wife Petra and eight of their children join him in Buffalo. Their family grew to 13 and lived in Lackawanna, where soot from factory smoke covered clothes his mother left on the line outside.
“The clothes would dry and she had to wash it again,” he said. “They were people of strong faith. Even though they met some challenges coming here. Their faith rally helped them endure.”