Whether Hispanics hail from Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico or Columbia, they are a caring, loving and giving people who must stand united and persevere if they are to succeed in the United States.
That was the message delivered by Pedro Medino, the keynote speaker at Lawrence High School’s second annual Hispanic Heritage Month celebration Oct. 4. Medina is the interim police director for the City of Trenton, and a retired Trenton police officer.
Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, celebrates the contributions of American citizens whose ancestors immigrated to the United States from Spain, the Caribbean Islands, Central America and South America.
Lawrence High School’s celebration acknowledged the contributions of three Hispanics, honoring them with the 2019 Trailblazer Award. A fourth awardee, who is a recent Lawrence High School graduate, was given the Rising Star Award. The awards were in line with the evening’s theme of “Honoring Our Heritage, Building Our Future.”
The celebration is “truly” a great night and a source of pride for the Lawrence High School Hispanic community, Medina said.
“It is important for all students to understand our past (and) what lies ahead in the future. I think of the old days, and there is a need for me to speak from the heart and open doors and pave the way (for others),” Medina said.
Medina, who was born in Puerto Rico, said that when he came to the United States as a young child, he felt out of place. He did not know English. The 1970’s was “tough time” to be a young Puerto Rican, he said.
But Medina mastered the language, graduating from Trenton Central High School and The College of New Jersey. He joined the Trenton Police Department, where he worked for nearly 30 years.
Medina pointed out that the local Puerto Rican community were pioneers, paving the way for later Hispanic immigrants from countries in Central America and South America.
“We felt like pioneers. Every day was not perfect, and there will always be obstacles. But we made the road a lot less bumpy for you,” Median told the Lawrence High School students and their families.
Medina himself was a pioneer when he ran for mayor of Trenton in 1990 – the first Hispanic to do so. He did not win the election, but others who came after him have run for elected office in Trenton. Trenton City Councilman Santiago Rodriguez is the first Puerto Rican to serve on the City Council, he added.
“These candidates opened the door and paved the way. We must continue to move forward and take our seats,” Medina said.
While there have been other successes – Hispanics have opened their own businesses, for example – “much more needs to be done,” he said.
“America is a melting pot, but nothing was given to us,” Medina said.
“My message is this. We are Hispanics, and we are proud. It takes perseverance to open the door and pave the way, yet our work never ends. Don’t be comfortable with this night. United, we make the world a better place,” he said.
Among those who have made the world a better place are Hiram Santiago, Marlene Lao-Collins and Ivonne Diaz-Claisse, who were honored with the Trailblazer Award.
Santiago is Trenton Fire Department captain, who was born in Trenton. He moved to Puerto Rico with his family when he was 12 years old, but returned to Trenton as an adult to create a better life for his family.
Lao-Collins is the executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton. She served on the Trenton Board of Education, and was a co-founder of the Mercer County Hispanic Association (MECHA) and the Latina Women’s Council.
Diaz-Claisse is the founder, president and chief executive officer of Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement. The nonprofit group, which mobilizes Hispanic professionals to serve as role models, was founded in New Jersey and has spread to San Antonio, Texas; New York City; and Florida.
The Rising Star Award was given to Marjorie Garcia-Sanchez, who graduated from Lawrence High School in 2017. She was born in Trenton and moved to Lawrence with her mother. She is a junior at Rutgers University, where she is majoring in social work.