By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
Nearly 1,000 people came to dance and eat and to celebrate Latin American culture Saturday at Pershing Park Elementary School as they took part in the third annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration.
The event served as a fitting finale for Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15 and ends Monday.
Sept. 15 is the anniversary of independence for the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua; Mexico's independence day falls on Sept. 16 and Chile's on Sept. 18.
Those in attendance were treated to a drawing for gift cards donated from area stores, as well as musical performances with a decidedly Hispanic flair, including a mariachi band.
Yamile Ocasio, bilingual para-liaison for Pershing Elementary, coordinated the day's events in her second year of involvement with the celebration.
"It's one of the most important events we put on for our students because it's not just for Hispanics. Everyone is invited, and our students learn from it," Ocasio said. "
As a para-liaison, Ocasio works with the parents of children in the bilingual program to provide guidance in the form of counseling and educational workshops.
She said Pershing is one of five schools in the Killeen area with a bilingual program. She noted that the 160 enrolled in the program at Pershing prepared for the event in recent weeks by making flags in class representing the nationalities of countries throughout Latin America.
She said most of the nearly 1,000 students in the program districtwide came to the United States from one of the area's numerous countries where Spanish is the primary language spoken.
Many volunteers, such as Jessica Santiago, came to show support for the event, even if they don't have a child in the bilingual program. Santiago has a 9-year-old son who attends Pershing Elementary, but said the event is great for anyone interested in learning about Hispanic heritage.
"The people come and enjoy the food and enjoy the music from the different countries," Santiago said. "This helps other people learn and enjoy our culture, and helps us get together and celebrate our differences."
But more than anything, Ocasio said celebrations like Hispanic Heritage Day help bring classroom learning into a real-world scenario while maintaining a comfortable atmosphere in which the students can learn about the countries in which many of their parents lived.
"We help explain where the dances come from, the traditions," Ocasio said, adding that the response has been tremendously positive. "Without our parents' and volunteer support, we would never be able to put on anything this big. Everyone is happy when they're dancing, the children (and others in attendance) are enjoying the food and learning about where they came from."
Contact Justin Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7568