Maria Teresa Donate Mena’s father came to the United States to study, but he returned home to Puerto Rico because language became too strong a barrier.
When Donate decided to pursue her own American dream, she chose to settle in Bethlehem, working at Northampton Community College. She said Bethlehem reminded her of San Germán, a small Puerto Rican city where she used to work.
Donate became an advocate for her community members’ rights. She helped undocumented students obtain college degrees and even sued the Bethlehem Area School District to achieve fair representation on the school board.
She is one of three South Side leaders featured in a new mural that honors Bethlehem’s Latinx community.
The Banana Factory Arts Center celebrated the mural’s unveiling to the public on Sept. 2.
“I understand as an artist, I am a visual anthropologist of the times, and of now,” muralist Symone Salib said in her speech. “I want to be able to represent that in a way that feels like home to me, and that really represents the community.”
Salib is a Philadelphia-based artist and a first-generation Latina.
Her mural features two other prominent South Side leaders: Olga Negrón, former councilwoman, and Guillermo Lopez, Intersekt Alliance consultant.
The artwork was inspired by an oral history archive project facilitated by Lafayette College and the Bethlehem Area Public Library.
The archive, titled, “Voces De La Comunidad: The Latinx Experience in Bethlehem, PA,” amplifies the accomplishments of the Latinx community members from 1969 to today.
Salib’s mural highlights some of the participants from the archive, like Donate, but the entire project is comprised of interviews of 11 Bethlehem leaders.
Other participants include Jose Rosado, the first Latino mayor in Pennsylvania, and District Justice Nancy Matos Gonzalez, the state’s first Latina judge.
Conversations in the archive center around topics such as migration experiences, racism and colorism, business, housing, gaining representation, politics and education.
Donate spoke at the unveiling about what participating in the project meant to her.
“When you remember your life, you remember it in chunks, in pieces,” Donate said. “This gave me the opportunity to see my whole life, my trajectory, my winning and my defeats.”
The oral archive was spearheaded by Janine Carambot Santoro, the president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of the Lehigh Valley and the city’s first Director for Equity and Inclusion.
Santoro previously worked for the Bethlehem Public Library South Side Branch in adult services.
Santoro said she noticed that very few items on the bookshelves reflected the recent past of the South Side’s Puerto Rican history. The lack of accessibility to those stories motivated her to begin the oral history archive.
“Everyone recognizes someone in the archive that’s from the South Side, I think,” Santoro said. “It says to them: ‘our history matters.’ And here, it matters so much that it’s available to all of us.”
With the help of the library’s executive director, Josh Berk, ArtsQuest connected Santoro and Salib to give the oral history project its own visual manifestation in town.
Santoro said she is pleased the mural can help bring attention to the Latinx/Hispanic community’s stories in an archive with no paywalls.
“The painting of the mural and the release of the archive was a happy accident,” Santoro said. “The timing was just so good.”
Santoro said the goal for the project is to provide younger generations with the whole context of how certain South Side leaders have helped pave the way for individuals who identify as Latino, Hispanic or Latinx.
Salib said she identifies with the archive’s mission.
“At the end of the day, who do we want to see in our public space other than who is really here and who really works towards building a future we all want to be a part of?” she said.
The Bethlehem Area Public Library will serve as the mural’s permanent home. The oral archive project can be found on the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium website for anyone to access.
Santoro said she hopes others become inspired to seek more funding and take this project further.
“You can’t paint a whole community with the same brush,” Santoro said. “The archival work is something that should keep continuing.”
Donate said she encourages everyone to listen to the archive. She said her interview led her to an epiphany of her own.
“In a way, the dream I thought was my dream, I think it was my father’s dream,” she said. “And I realized that during the interview. And let me tell you, it was a very powerful moment.”