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Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month

Claudia Robles, 2019 PBS Kids Early Learning Champion, Spanish Immersion Preschool Teacher and owner of BilingualKid Language Immersion School
Claudia Robles, 2019 PBS Kids Early Learning Champion, Spanish Immersion Preschool Teacher and owner of BilingualKid Language Immersion School

Written in collaboration with Digital Intern Gabriela Santana

National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic Americans from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Hear how these Hispanic Virginians are working to enrich the communities they serve. For more stories like these, visit @myVPM on Instagram. 

Angelica Garcia

“I’ve been working at a Cuban restaurant to cover the costs of my art. All the artwork, all the videos, all the recording, all the traveling I’ve done, I paid for myself. I’ve been working a lot of brunch shifts, picking up extra shifts, and working really hard at the restaurant so I can take a week off and travel to Maine and open for Phoebe Bridgers or go to New York City and play at Rough Trade with Natalie Prass. I’ve had to play two shows in one night and then wake up at 8:00 am to work the brunch shift. But I do it so I can continue to make my art. I’m proud of how hard I work and how I got to where I am. It means so much to me after all that hard work to see people really care and react to what I’m making and want to see more.”
- Angelica Garcia, Musician

Juan Santacoloma

“As an immigrant who came to the United States without anything more than my wife, my two girls, and suitcases full of dreams, I know exactly what it is to struggle. I went from being a tourist to an undocumented alien to an asylee to a permanent resident, and am now a citizen. Because of my job [as Chesterfield County Community Engagement Coordinator and Multicultural Services], I have the opportunity to talk and share my experiences with people and help them with the struggles they face.
Around 10 years ago, I received a call from a Latina lady who was living in California. She was a victim of domestic violence and was calling me to learn more about Chesterfield County. The lady was so depressed from her abuse that she wanted to kill herself. I spent almost two hours talking with her by phone about her situation, her child, life, opportunities, Chesterfield County, and me as Colombian and American. We finished the conversation with the promise she was not going to kill herself and I believed her. 
Two years later, at the end of a meeting where I was assisting a Latino family in the Mental Health Department, the counselor asked the customer if she had any other questions or if she needed anything from us. 
I interpreted and the lady who looked for assistance answered, ‘Yes.’
The counselor replied, ‘What do you need?’
She said, ‘I would like to know if you know Mr. Santacoloma.’ 
I interpreted totally shocked. I asked her, ‘Juan Santacoloma?’ I asked why she needed to talk to him. 
The lady told us that this person had helped her a lot in a difficult moment and thanks to him she survived domestic abuse and her own suicidal thoughts. I interpreted everything to the counselor who was crying. 
So, I said to the lady, ‘Nice to meet you, I am Juan Santacoloma.’
- Juan Santacoloma, Chesterfield County

Cristina Dominguez Ramirez

“About 6 years ago, I got a tattoo of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and the windmills on my right arm. I am a dreamer. I guess you could say that I carry my dreams on my sleeve. I grew up around images from this book. My father, who’s family is Mexican American, used to quote the line ‘vivir loco y morir cuerdo.’ It means freedom to be yourself and live life on your own terms. It is better than the converse, to live safely and following all the rules but dying not understanding the world around you. Sometimes you have to change your reality in order to change other’s reality. I take that mission seriously. I hope to change issues of access and educational attainment for Latinx and Hispanic students. I have to change my reality and grow through the organizations I work for in order to better provide resources for students.” 
- Cristina Dominguez Ramirez, Library Manager at Henrico County Public Library

Victor Torres

“My parents moved from Puerto Rico to New York seeking the American dream. But when I turned 12, their American dream turned into a nightmare. I started to hang out with a gang. By the age of 14, I shot heroin for the first time and by 18, I had already been in jail three times. Most of my friends died in gang fights during that time. My mother and father didn’t know what to do. Then one day, my mother bumped into a street preacher by the name of David Wilkerson. David had opened up a home to help people like me. There I had a calling. I was called to help others who were hurting like I was. I went back to school, to bible college, and ended up in Richmond with my wife. Here we started taking people off the streets and created the same kind of program that helped me in New York. Today, our ministry has reached over 20,000 young men and women seeking help. That is my inspiration: seeing lives transform.”
- Victor Torres, New Life Outreach International

Estela Knott

“I grew up biracial, bicultural, and bilingual. I’ve always felt very much like I was running across a bridge between two cultures - I like to call myself a bridge child, someone who brings cultures together. My husband Dave and I met in Charlottesville in 1998, I didn’t realize we would end up on a lifelong journey together through our musical genetic history. We traveled extensively throughout the Western Hemisphere learning about lots of different kinds of folk music. That journey brought us back home pregnant and excited about starting to create the music of our combined cultures and not only did we birth our first child, we also birthed the Lua Project which is a cultural arts-based ‘Mexilachian’ music project, housed at the McGuffey Art Center, that blends original and traditional music of Mexico, Appalachia, and the Atlantic basin. Through music, we seek to create, respectfully explore, educate and build artistic bridges between cultures through performances, community programs, and cultural events. We have been fortunate to have the support of Virginia Humanities on a number of our projects like ‘Mexican Son Meets The Music of Appalachia, new songs for an emerging Virginia culture’ where we interviewed Latin American friends who have made the Appalachians of Virginia home. With their stories, we weaved Spanish/English bilingual verses, as well as elements from both Appalachian and Mexican music together to create what we like to call ‘Mexilachian’ music, that will hopefully become part of a living culture in Virginia. The most important thing to us is that this music and the new culture it represents will become a part of history and that our children can pass it down to their children.”
- Estela Knott of the Lua Project 

Andrea Beatriz Arango

“I have always been a writer - first in Spanish and then in English. I spent most of my childhood and early adulthood writing stories and poems that nobody other than my family read. Eventually, I realized that only I had the power to make my dream a reality. So I buckled down, wrote the story I wanted to tell, and when nobody would publish it because it was too short, too niche, too diverse for the market, I published it myself.
Only 5% of all children’s books published in 2018 had a Latinx main character. That’s insane, especially given the amount of Latinx people currently living in the United States. As a middle school ESOL teacher, meaning I teach English to immigrants and refugees, it’s important to me that I write young adult books that reflect my students’ culture and appearance back at them. And not just their Latinx culture, but their spectrum of gender identities as well. I wanted to show that although serious immigration stories are important, and although heartfelt coming-out stories are important, it is also necessary to have teenagers see themselves represented in fun fantasy and mystery books too. That they can be Puerto Rican and solve mysteries. That they can be nonbinary and fight monsters. I love hearing from a teenager that they loved my book, or from an adult who expresses how much they wish books like mine had existed when they were growing up. That is my fuel and what keeps me going on the hard days.”
- Andrea Beatriz Arango, author of Westwood Monster Patrol 

Alfonso Perez Acosta

“I couldn’t stop thinking about COVID-19 and wanted to do something about it. I thought about making a portrait of one person who had recovered from COVID, just for myself, but I very quickly felt that it was something I needed to share with everybody else. I felt this strong pull towards a positive spin around the situation and it made me feel like I wasn’t ignoring it—I was approaching it in a positive and joyful way.
It is very interesting to see how people from different backgrounds are following me now and sharing their thoughts, comments, concerns, and being super encouraging about what I do. I just got a message, probably two days ago, from a friend of mine from Colombia. I had known her when I was a teenager but hadn’t talked to her in 20 or 25 years. When she emailed me, she told me she knew someone who had recovered from the virus. She sent me a picture of her friend and I ended up doing a portrait of them. It was really amazing to get in contact with her again and include other people around the world through this project.”
- Alfonso Perez Acosta 

Claudia Robles

“Once my 3rd child was born, I knew I didn't want her to go to any of the daycares available in my area. I wanted a Spanish immersion preschool program where she could learn about other cultures and celebrate diversity. When there weren’t any good options that met my expectations, I decided to create my own program. I partnered with my mother to provide a true Spanish immersion program, with 2 Spanish native speakers and lots of love for children. I designed our curriculum to follow and exceed preschool guidelines and Kindergarten readiness. I made sure each week the kids learned a new country and where it is located on the globe, their language, and culture. Our first 3-year-old student visited his sister’s elementary school after only a few weeks of starting at BilingualKid. While he was there he pointed to the map and told his mom, "Look, there is Russia!" The school teachers were so impressed that such a young child knew about geography. All our kids become more and more inquisitive about learning different things in the world using sign language as a bridge to connect bilingualism and biliteracy, and it opens their minds to being able to put themselves in the place of others, therefore becoming compassionate and kind world citizens. If all kids were taught to love languages, geography, and diversity from a young age, we could solve so many social issues that are caused by fear of the unknown. Children don’t see different ethnicities well represented in books and conversations aren’t being had about not judging others by the color of their skin. I want my students to look into people’s hearts instead while getting all the brain development advantages that learning other languages brings.
- Claudia Robles, 2019 PBS Kids Early Learning Champion, Spanish Immersion Preschool Teacher and owner of BilingualKid Language Immersion School

David Bowles

“Though I was a Mexican American kid living on the border of Mexico in the 70s and 80s, in none of my classes did we learn any of the mythology from the people just to the south - many of whom were our ancestors. No Aztec or Maya mythology, nothing. There were 60 indigenous nations in Mexico when the Spanish invaded. That's a lot of sacred stories, a lot of legends, a lot of vital stuff that hadn't been tapped into. I decided to bring that rich heritage to an audience that would crave and enjoy them if they knew they existed.
I started by “contextualizing” local folktales that were syncretic versions of those older stories, giving the characters names and adding dialogue. These pieces showcased for young readers our shared culture and community, proving they are worthy of being written about.
In my third year teaching English, I had a group of students who really struggled to connect with the state-adopted textbook we were using. Many of my students had recently exited the ESL program and this was their first regular English class. Others had failed the state assessment. Then there were students who, for whatever reason, reading hadn’t clicked with.
So I began reading from my contextualized folktales. I told them to put their books away, dim the lights and listen to the story. It was a sea-change for me as a teacher because the students responded well. So for the rest of that year, we worked together to find ways to go into our community and recover stories that we had heard when we were younger, retell them, and preserve them. I did that for the next seven years. The stories that I created with those students became the basis for my first short story collection. 
Now I want to bring greater exposure to the wealth of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican myths and legends in which my culture is rooted so that they stand alongside the Greek, Roman, Japanese, Egyptian, and other traditions that kids are more familiar with.”
- David Bowles, James River Writers Conference Keynote Speaker


“Music was always a part of my life growing up in Puerto Rico but never a serious pursuit. Moving to Virginia really connected me with my roots and the two musical styles for which Puerto Rico is known: Bomba and Plena. Being able to share my culture and its music alongside my father and a great group of musicians fuels me and fills me with pride. I look forward to watching Kadencia and the very talented lineup of musicians featured on ‘All Together Now.’ Thanks to Richmond Folk Festival and VPM for supporting diversity in music and presenting it to the world.”
- Maurice Sanabria, requinto hand drummer for Kadencia 

Ana Ines King 

“Once, I taught a prodigy child who was too smart for his age. He needed to come with a nurse to school because he would become aggressive with himself if the other students did not understand what he already knew. He used to bump his head on the walls when he was frustrated. When I taught a Spanish-through-dance class, the school teacher said to me that this boy would not participate. I was on the stage teaching other children a merengue dance, playing maracas, and singing in Spanish, and the boy got up from the chair and came to participate. The first thing he said was, “Wow! This is very challenging for me. I want to try!” Singing in another language, coordinating the steps with the music, and playing maracas at the same rhythm was way too hard for him at first, but he loved the experience of having to work to acquire a skill. He later received a scholarship from the Latin Ballet of Virginia to attend regular dance classes. Today, the boy is an engineer with a master’s degree in science.” 
- Ana Ines King, Founding Artistic Director of the Latin Ballet of Virginia


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