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Hispanic pride and heritage reaching out on Okinawa

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-12-04

Hispanics have influenced both America and Okinawa over the past three decades with their rich and vibrant culture. Their contributions to American society have touched everything from music to sports, and politics to economics. By the year 2001, it is estimated that Hispanics will make up 25% of America's ethnically mixed population, a statistic that has more ramifications than just an increase in population percentage. Already, certain states are addressing issues such as bilingual education. Here on Okinawa, one of the largest influx of immigrants has been from extended family members, who were born and raised in Hispanic countries. The sounds of Diamantes over a dinner of some great Mexican food - Okinawan style, have become a popular scene across the island. The Hispanic American Association is one group that is helping to foster even greater understanding of the Hispanic culture, and they are opening many eyes to a heritage of pride to Hispanics themselves.

Formed in 1992, the organization has gone through a few growing pains over the past six years, but it has still kept its friendly atmosphere and Hispanic pride. One of the biggest changes to have taken place is the group going from being focused on events and projects primarily for only its members, to becoming an organization whose goal is to expand the culture to other Americans and local nationals.

President Jose Antonio Perez Morales explained, "Our purpose is to promote awareness about Hispanic culture. You do not have to be Hispanic to join the association. It is open to anyone interested in Hispanic culture." Along with the help form other dedicated members, he has lead the group to an agenda that includes participation in many different on-base and local events. "We could not accomplish much of what we do if it were not for the work of some really great visionary members," said Perez.

One of the ways through which the Hispanic American Association appeals to the general public is with its dance group. With authentic costumes, representing the folklore of various Hispanic countries, the dancers perform at many events around the island. Their dances include the salsa, mereque, cha cha, mambo, tango, and many more. Jennifer Mathews, who is a Kinser Elementary school teacher and also Vice President of the Hispanic American Association, teaches about twenty five kids for the children's dance group. The dancing has been a great way for members to have fun, enable their kids to learn more about their heritage, and to also help promote the Hispanic cultures of many different places.

Members also enjoy many personal get-togethers, that range from domino games to a recent thanksgiving dinner, which featured a turkey cooked Panamanian style. "It really is like a family club. We have fun, dance, eat, our kids run around and play with each other. It helps many people new to the island to deal with being homesick."

Perez is proud of the fact that his organization enjoys membership of so many different nationalities. "This is not about the flag you represent. It's about Hispanic culture," he said. Perez also mentioned that they try to support any Hispanic activity, as well as being open to cooperation between different groups. "We try to acknowledge all the different cultures."

But Perez is also very serious when he speaks about the lack of knowledge among many Hispanics about their own culture. "We also want to appeal to those guys who are married to local nationals. They owe it to their kids and families to introduce the culture." Getting more Hispanics to understand the importance of passing on traditions and their cultural roots to the next generation is not an easy task. Many children in multi-cultural families tend to experience only the culture of where they are living. "I want to wake up these Hispanics. People complain but they do not get involved," exclaimed Perez. He also mentioned having more support and cooperation from other organizations is necessary. "I think MWR should have a cultural committee to address the needs of different ethnic groups."

The Hispanic American Association is trying to extend their future activities to include more education. This past year, five scholarships were awarded to students, which Perez hopes to continue annually. Group member Karen Smith also lead her 6th grade Spanish immersion class in the Okinawa City International Parade a few months ago. "I would like to link our association internationally and represent Hispanic culture in Okinawa," said Perez about their future goals.

The organization is currently trying to renovate their new office, which is located on Camp Lester. They are looking for help and also welcome any new members. For more information on joining, or about their dance performances and any other activities, please call Jose at 933-1753 or Karen Smith at 637-2204.

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