‘Today, we are all Boricua’: Hundreds celebrate Puerto Rico at annual heritage day celebration

  • Tome Campos, a 4th grader at Crocker Farm with the Puerto Rican Flag during the Puerto Rican Heritage Day Celebration in Amherst Friday morning, Sept. 23, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tome Campos, a fourth grader at Crocker Farm Elementary School in Amherst, holds the Puerto Rican flag in celebration during the Puerto Rican Heritage Day in Amherst Friday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Liam Reid, a member of the Amherst Regional Conjunto De Bomba during the Puerto Rican Heritage Day Celebration in Amherst on Friday morning, Sept. 23, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Waleska Santiago-Centeno during her speech at the Puerto Rican Heritage Day Celebration in Amherst on Friday morning, Sept. 23, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Isela Rivera, a second grade dual-language teacher at Fort River, leads a group of students in a dance during Puerto Rican Heritage Day Celebration in Amherst Friday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michelle Rodriguez, with ARPS Family Center, hands out puerto Rican flags to students as they arrive for the Puerto Rican Heritage Day Celebration in Amherst Friday morning, Sept. 23, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2022 9:13:23 PM

AMHERST — Cultural recognition, coupled with appreciation for and accepting people’s differences, are concepts Crocker Farm School librarian Waleska Santiago-Centeno bring to her students through literature.

“A book can validate children, particularly children from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Santiago-Centeno said during the town and school’s annual Puerto Rican Heritage Day on Friday.

Before hundreds of students, teachers and community members gathered on the North Common on the brisk autumn morning, Santiago-Centeno, as the keynote speaker, reflected on being born and raised in Puerto Rico, her arrival in Springfield in 1989 and the need for her to learn English, and her completion of a master’s degree at Harvard University in 2016.

For the past five years as an educator in Amherst, Santiago-Centeno said she has stressed the importance of reading so students can reach “the magical world of understanding,” offering them books with diverse perspectives, from Indigenous peoples to the LGBTQ community.

Santiago-Centeno’s talk comes as she is being recognized by Latinos for Education as a Latinx educator of the year in Massachusetts.

Marta Guevara, the school district’s director of student and family engagement, began the proceedings by asking everyone to wave their small Puerto Rican flags

“Today, we are all Boricua,” Guevara said to cheers from the crowd, explaining that the name shows pride in their backgrounds.

She also asked to send love to those in Puerto Rico recovering from Hurricane Fiona.

“Today’s a celebration, but we also want to take one moment to think of our brothers and sisters on the island without water and electricity and a lot of things,” Guevara said.

The Puerto Rican flag was raised during the celebration. Like last year, the flag that will be flying for the next week is the same one that rose above San Juan following Hurricane Maria in 2017. That flag was a gift from Carmen Yulin Cruz, the city’s former mayor who gave the keynote address at last year’s celebration.

Before the flag raising the Town Council read the proclamation it issued that asks residents to reflect upon Puerto Rico’s history and the impact their residents have on the community, with Council President Lynn Griesemer adding that the display “helps cultivate awareness for all residents of Amherst.”

First-grade students from Pelham Elementary School, taught by Giselle Gonzalez, explained the origins of “Vejigantes,” with each student talking about the folkloric character used in Puerto Rican festival celebrations.

Second graders from Fort River School danced to Ricky Martin’s “Pegate,” Wildwood School students sang “Que Bonita Bandera” and Amherst Regional High School’s Conjunto de Bomba, which Guevara said is a formal bomba dance ensemble that no other school has, also performed. Holyoke author Leslea Newman, joined by Gonzalez, read “Alicia y el Huracan,” a story in both English and Spanish that Newman wrote following Hurricane Maria.

Superintendent Michael Morris spoke about the pride in Puerto Rican heritage and gave recognition to Guevara for her continuing coordination of the celebration. “Puerto Rican people living in Amherst have a long history of making this community better,” Morris said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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