Sept. 15 is especially significant in South Bethlehem as it marks the commencement of National Hispanic Heritage Month – in a city where 30% of residents are Hispanic, according to the 2020 Census.
On Sept. 16, approximately 225 Bethlehem residents attended the Hispanic Heritage Celebration at Touchstone Theater. The Northampton Community College’s Fowler Family Center has organized and hosted the event for the past four years.
Antonia Fernandez, the community outreach manager at Northampton Community College, estimated this year’s attendance was a 50% increase from previous years, which averaged 150 attendees.
“At the end, we’re just crossing our fingers and hoping that people will come,” Fernandez said. “And they did.”
Fernandez said the event was brought to them by State Rep. Steve Samuelson.
Every year during Hispanic Heritage Month, Samuelson organized a health care fair catered primarily toward seniors. Understaffed and unable to find a venue, Samuelson partnered with the Bethlehem-based community college in 2019 to host the event before officially handing over the event the following year.
Since 2020, the college has held the event at the Barrio Stage of Touchstone Theater on East Fourth Street. Janine Santoro, director of equity and inclusion for Bethlehem’s mayor’s office, said it’s necessary to ensure the event is free and accessible to the community. This is why the celebration is held at the theater, a location central to the South Side’s Latin population.
The event’s program this year included food, community resources, cultural exhibitors, activities and the presentation of the Unsung Hero Awards, which Santoro said honor people who help the Hispanic community survive and excel across Bethlehem.
The inscription for the awards says they commend individuals who are “quietly noble and (ask) for nothing but human kindness in return.”
Entertainment was provided by DI Baby, the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra and Talento Local, a local Puerto Rican folkloric music group comprised of seniors from the Lehigh Valley Hispanic Center.
Attendees were encouraged to dress in their country’s colors to celebrate their heritage.
Exhibitors were set up around the event, each selecting a different Latin country to represent at their table. They ranged from a Guatemalan-themed table demonstrating how to embroider clothing to another showcasing Mexican baskets.
“We are getting new people every month from Central and South America,” Fernandez said. “This is an opportunity for them to see themselves represented by an exhibitor. It’s just an opportunity for them to come together with other Hispanics as one.”
Among those present at the event was Olga Negrón, the first elected Latina councilwoman in the City of Bethlehem. Negrón gave remarks on behalf of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office, where she now works as the executive director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs.
Samuelson was also in attendance and assisted the mayor’s office in presenting the Unsung Hero Awards.
Ten unsung heroes were honored, nine of whom came from what South Side residents affectionately call the “Yosko Crew.” Santoro said these are young men who have been good stewards of Yosko Park, whether through park clean-ups or mobilizing residents to be invested in their green spaces. The other honoree was Liza Leon, who founded Talento Local.
“It’s always great to be able to shake their hand and let them know, ‘thank you,’” Fernandez said.
Santoro said these awards are intended to increase visibility for Bethlehem’s Hispanic community, centering another narrative that she said is probably not the dominant one here.
“It’s a way of celebrating our history and how far we’ve come,” Santoro said. “And it’s a way to show people where we’re going.”
According to the Historical Marker Database, Hispanic migration to the Lehigh Valley began in the 1920s when Bethlehem Steel recruited hundreds of Mexicans into their labor force. In the late 1940s, Puerto Ricans also joined this trend, relocating to the region to secure employment opportunities at Bethlehem Steel.
Raymond Santiago, executive director of the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, said a lot of the economic growth in the region can be attributed to its Hispanic workforce.
“You don’t have to know much as an outsider to know that we have a large Moravian history or that we have a lot of European immigration, but sometimes it takes some digging to know the Latino and Hispanic history here,” Fernandez said.
To commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, Santiago said that he is inviting several guests to the Hispanic Center’s Senior Center to experience and learn more about Hispanic culture. He said the center is also visiting multiple Hispanic heritage celebrations in the area to share information about their programs and connect people in need to vital services.
Leonides Solivan, a participant at the senior center, said her fellow seniors enjoy these Hispanic Heritage Month events.
“As they were raising their children and they were here, they never had that,” Solivan said. “Now when they come and they are exposed to these kinds of celebrations, it opens up their whole lives for them.”