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Latino Club Members Celebrate Culture, Share Concerns about Future


For Hispanic high school students in the new Latino Student Union, there are many ways to relate to each other. They enjoy shared traditions and values: “tamales, Dia De Los Muertos, big families, music, dancing,” lists sophomore Joshua Casas. “Our parents are very hard working,” said junior Andrea Paniagua. And they teach manners, she said. “Manners are huge.”

The students also talk gravely about serious issues affecting their community, like friends who are Dreamers under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, rescinded by the Trump administration in September, and who now face an uncertain future. They also talk about fear in their community concerning threats of deportation.

About 35 percent of students at Kelloggsville High School are Hispanic, and many are first- and second-generation U.S. residents, coming from Mexico and other Central American countries. Andrea Paniagua, last year, wanted to restart the Latino Student Union, which hadn’t existed for several years, as a way to celebrate culture and share it with all students. The club is open to everyone.

“I wanted to have fun and I wasn’t involved in anything else,” said Andrea, who immigrated to the U.S with her family from Mexico. “A lot of us weren’t involved in anything, so we all agreed to put this together. We also wanted to show others about our culture.”

It was last fall and she noticed anti-immigrant sentiment heating up before the U.S. presidential election. She decided, “We are still going to start a club.”

Junior Karina Villagomez paints a sugar skull on junior Jackie Garnica’s face for Dia de los Muertos

Embracing Their Culture

Now about 20 students meet weekly to plan events and activities like selling Mexican candy, painting sugar skulls for Dia De Los Muertos, and hosting a fiesta with ethnic food. They are planning to take part in the annual Cesar Chavez Parade in March in Grand Rapids, and plan to host a dance.

The Latino Student Union started a trend. Since it began, students have started other clubs including the Asian American Club, fitness clubs and a gay-straight alliance.

“I like letting everyone know that it’s OK to embrace your culture and be proud of who you are,” Joshua Casas said.

Andrea approached Spanish teacher Diana Berlanga, who is also Mexican, about being the club’s adviser.

“I thought about the reason I became a teacher,” Berlanga said. “I love teaching Spanish but I also want to help out the Hispanic community, so I said this could be a great way to connect with students to motivate them to go to college and complete high school. For a lot of these students, what I’ve noticed is their parents didn’t graduate high school or even attend middle school, so education (for their children) is very important.”

A Godwin High School graduate, she told club members, “If I made it, then you guys can make it too.”

From left, senior Alex Aguilar, junior Cindy Esparza and junior Andrea Paniagua dance the Caballo Dorado

Parents’ Expectations High

Students said coming together regularly is motivating, and has helped them build friendships. In terms of academics, Joshua said the club gives him confidence and a group of people in similar situations to turn to.

They also hope to breakdown stereotypes. Andrea, who still visits Michauna, Mexico, almost every year, said she and her Hispanic peers are all different, but share common life experiences. They describe their parents as strict and insistent that they do well in school and go to college. “They expect us to go to school. That is not something they play around with,” Andrea said.

Their parents are also focused on being successful in the U.S., she added.
“I’ve never in my life seen a Mexican asking for money. That’s our last option. My dad came here with nothing and we have a house and a car. He gives us everything.”

In preparation for the dance they are planning, club members discussed the music and dances. They lined up to show off the Caballo Dorado, a lively cowboy dance — just one example of their celebration of culture.

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Pew Research Center article: 5 facts about Latinos and Education

Latino Student Union members discuss plans for a dance they are hosting

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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