BMCC kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month—its theme is “Journey to a Better Future”—with an Opening Ceremony in Theatre 1 featuring the renowned folkloric ensemble, Quetzal Mexican Dancers.
Also on the program was a chorus of children from the BMCC Early Childhood Center, and rights advocate Bibiana Aido, who accepted an Honorary Award on behalf of the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, now Executive Director of U.N. Women, a new agency within the United Nations.
A path paved by others
The event, chaired by Professor Carmen L. Martínez-López, was emceed by student David Strickler, who urged the audience not to miss an exhibition by Latino artists of 32BJ (a workers union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union), and students from the class of Professor Xico Greenwald, displayed on the breezeway gallery leading into Theatre 1.
Event Co-Chair Ivelisse Rodriguez, a professor in the English department, spoke and described reading Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez with her students, who were struck by the “pride” evident in the play’s Chicano slang.
Her colleague, Professor Francisca Suarez-Coalla noted that at BMCC, “We have a ‘real’ picture of diversity in our classes. I tell students, we have to write our own history. We can’t allow someone else to do it.”
Speaker Robert Diaz, BMCC’s VP for Legal Affairs/Faculty & Staff Relations, shared that he attended David Farragut High School in the Bronx, its namesake an Hispanic and First Admiral of the U.S. Navy who was followed by Horatio Rivera, a Puerto Rican and Four-Star Admiral. “The path to where we are today is paved with the blood and sweat of others,” said Diaz.
Folklorico and a children’s chorus
The Quetzal Mexican Dancers, introduced by Professor José Mendozo, made their entrance in lavish pre-Columbian costumes with flashing gold fringe. Shells rattled on their ankles as they beat drums, played flutes, and shook spectacular headdresses representing the quetzal, a sacred bird of the Mayans, indigenous people of Mexico.
The Dancers returned throughout the program, Spanish and Mestizo culture emerging as they moved through Colonialism to the present, women appearing in ruffled dresses and snapping open their fans, men in black suits studded with silver, even brandishing machetes, in one piece.
Eliciting a different kind of “Ah!" from the audience, children of the Early Childhood Center, led by Professor Glenda Torres, shook tambourines and gourd rattles, gathering on stage to sing “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” and other favorites in both English and Spanish.
Which box do I check?
Student speaker David Strickler told of learning, as a teenager, that the father he hadn’t seen since he was four years old, was from Puerto Rico. “No longer would I mark the box for ‘Caucasian’ on a form, without ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Other’ staring me in the eye,” he said, and spoke of "embracing my lost culture."
Mariano Laboy, another BMCC student, shared his memory of deciding to emigrate from Puerto Rico to New York City, where he could send money home to his family, and telling his mother, “Our condition has got to change.”
“New York embraces all our journeys,” said BMCC President Antonio Pérez, who was born in Puerto Rico, moved to Harlem as a child, and began his career as a counselor at the State University of New York at Albany, where Hispanic students asked for his help persuading the administration to offer courses on Puerto Rican history and culture.
“Students were looking for some aspect of their identity within their academic institution,” Pérez said, adding that today, at BMCC, “We are a global society. We represent everyone,” and ending on a personal note: “I’m Puerto Rican, my wife is Irish-English, and my son is engaged to a Chinese woman. In our society, what boxes will their children check? That is our society.”
Not an issue of human rights, but human resources
Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of U.N. Women, and President of Chile from 2006 to 2010, was honored with The Latina World Woman Advocator for Gender Equality and Women''s Empowerment award from BMCC.
Bachelet, whose father opposed the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power—he was tortured and died while held by Pinochet’s forces—began her career as a medical doctor treating victims of torture. She was appointed as Chile’s Health Minister under Socialist President Ricardo Lagos, and in 2002 became that country''s first woman to lead the Defense Ministry.
In 2006, Michelle Bachelet became Chile’s first female president, facing challenges with the country’s public education system, conditions for copper miners and a chaotic new transportation system. In the second half of her presidency, the price of copper spiked and she gained wide respect for her economic policies, enabling Chile to weather the global financial crisis of 2008 by applying copper profits toward the country’s pension and social programs, and creating a jobs stimulus package.
Bibiano Aido, Special Advisor to Michelle Bachelet, accepted the award on her behalf. Aido, a Spanish politician, has implemented legislation protecting gender-based violence victims, promoting reproductive health, and fighting the trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation.
“We need as many women and men working together as possible, to accomplish these goals,” she said, urging BMCC students to take action toward gender equality.
“It’s not just a question of human rights,” she said, “but of human resources. We cannot do it without half the population’s intelligence and contribution. Women are part of the solution.”