‘We are better because you are here’: Amherst celebrates Puerto Rican Heritage Day

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  • Ahmed Gonzalez, left, a paraeducator at Amherst Regional, and his father, Jose Gonzalez, cuatro virtuoso from Puerto Rico, perform “Que Bonita Bandera” for about 300 people gathered on the Amherst Common for the annual celebration of Puerto Rican Heritage Day on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pelham Elementary first graders, from left, Evelyn Varriale, Ellie Green, Jasmine Laianie and Stella Griswold take part in their class’s presentation on the Tainos, the native people of Puerto Rico, during Puerto Rican Heritage Day on the Amherst Common, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pelham Elementary first grade teacher Giselle Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico, holds two flags of Puerto Rico, the current one, right, and the 1868 Lares Revolutionary flag, also known as the first flag, as she dances to music with her students at the annual celebration of Puerto Rican Heritage Day on the Amherst Common on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Marta Guevara, right, Amherst Regional Public Schools Director of Student and Family Engagement and emcee for the annual Puerto Rican Heritage Day celebration, is applauded by Carmen Yulin Cruz, former mayor of San Juan and keynote speaker for the event on the Amherst Common on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Jose Gonzalez, right, cuatro virtuoso from Puerto Rico, and his son Ahmed Gonzalez, left, a paraeducator at Amherst Regional, perform "Que Bonita Bandera" for about 300 people gathered on the Amherst Common for the annual celebration of Puerto Rican Heritage Day on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carmen Yulin Cruz, the former mayor of San Juan, speaks to about 300 people gathered on the Amherst Town Common for the annual celebration of Puerto Rican Heritage Day on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pelham Elementary first graders wave flags as their class waits to start its presentation on the Taino people at the annual celebration of Puerto Rican Heritage Day on the Amherst Common on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2021 8:11:48 PM

AMHERST — Amnerys Cuevas left her home in Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria four years ago, arriving in Amherst so her infant could have good medical care.

Now in her third year teaching Spanish in the Caminantes dual language program at Fort River School, Cuevas said she feels proud to be part of the larger community and to be welcomed despite having no family connections and speaking little English.

“I’m thankful because people have received us and helped us,” Cuevas said.

Cuevas was among those recognized Thursday morning by Carmen Yulin Cruz, the former San Juan mayor, during her keynote address at Puerto Rican Heritage Day, with about 300 people, including numerous children from Amherst and Pelham schools, gathered on the North Common. Cruz suggested people give a virtual hug to those who have left the island as a way of showing them love.

“I feel so proud for her and everyone here,” Cuevas said after Cruz spoke. “I love the Puerto Rican community here in Amherst.”

The annual event, this year coinciding with Latino Heritage Month celebrations and held for the first time in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is organized by Marta Guevara, director of Student and Family Engagement for the Amherst Regional Public Schools.

Guevara said the event recognizes contributions from the Puerto Rican community, observing that support for newcomers has increased dramatically since her arrival to Amherst more than 40 years ago when she was dropped off with her family from a Greyhound bus in the town center.

Those who have arrived from Puerto Rico to the Amherst area want to make a difference and are now giving back, Cruz said. People can reciprocate by showing them love and respect. “You have no idea how welcome you feel when you are loved,” Cruz said.

Cruz pointed to her own friends in Amherst, South Hadley and Holyoke who supported her recovery from COVID-19, and she thanked Amherst for being the site where she was administered COVID-19 vaccine.

Superintendent Michael Morris said he has visited Puerto Rico four times, and that each time there he has been impressed by the people’s charm. Morris said that same charm has been brought by Puerto Ricans now living in Amherst.

“We are better because you are here,” Morris said.

During the event, a flag that was flown in Old San Juan after Hurricane Maria, brought by Cruz, was raised on the flag pole in front of Town Hall. Also, children in the Caminantes program danced and waved Puerto Rican flags as a medley of Puerto Rican songs were performed by José Gonzalez and his son Ahmed Gonzalez.

First graders in Giselle Gonzalez’s Pelham Elementary School class talked about the Tainos, the native people of Puerto Rico, and members of the Town Council read a proclamation in support of Puerto Rico.

Public school students from Puerto Rico now living in Amherst say they appreciate the event.

“It’s important that this happens every year because it reminds people of the culture and the diversity around here,” said Jaden Caraballo, 15, a 10th grader at Amherst Regional High School

Caraballo, who has lived in town for nine years, said he immediately felt welcome to the community when he arrived, even though he had to adapt to his new home.

Sixth grader Valeria Velez, 11, said this was the first time she had attended the event, and the message of friendship and compassion resonated with her. “I really liked the speakers and what they said,” Velez said.

Adrian Fernandez, a 13-year-old eighth grader, has lived in Amherst for five years. The event is emotional for him due to his own experience with a new culture.

“I had to make new friends,” he said about coming to town. “There’s also winter.”

“You get represented and that feels really great,” said Andrea Luciano, 15, an 11th grader at the high school.

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


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