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!Celebremos!

Lively celebration kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month in Arlington.

Arlington County’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month started off in the traditional style, with a program on Sept. 13 featuring a rousing dance by Grupo Folklórico de Panamá and a spirited recitation of the "Friendship Anthem" by members of Proyecto Familia.

Arlington County Board Chairman Christopher Zimmerman gave the welcome remarks and official proclamation reading, designating Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month. Raul Torres, assistant county manager for Arlington County, and Walter Tejada, County Board member, also spoke.

Henny Tejada and Ileana Mayorga of Alianza, the alliance for Hispanic employees in Arlington, presented Luz Stroh, a Peruvian immigrant, with the Founder’s Award. Stroh, an orphan, was raised by missionaries, and was very active in hospital work, achieving the position of nurse supervisor.

AFTER MEETING her future husband, a Peace Corps volunteer, Stroh wed and moved to the United States The transition was a difficult one, wrought with language and cultural barriers. Stroh persevered and became involved in community outreach, working in the Department of Human Services. She has been the supervisor at Harvey Hall’s Community Center for more than 10 years.

Families from Proyecto Familia, a program designed to help Latin American families who are new to the United States with their transition and encourage positive family networking, waved flags from the Latin American countries from which they arrived, while leading audience members in the "Friendship Anthem."

Project Family has its roots in Venezuela, and in 1989, the Arlington County Department of Human Services in conjunction with the League of United Latin American Citizens funded the program here in Arlington.

In keeping with the tribute to Hispanic culture and pride, a dance group from Panama, Grupo Folklórico de Panamá, gave a colorful performance.

The theme of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month is "Our Rich Culture Contributing to America’s Future," and judging from Wednesday’s program, the Hispanic population of Arlington has certainly been doing its part in enriching the community.

The necessity of recognizing the positive impacts immigrants have on this country was a commonly held sentiment among county officials and audience members.

Torres highlighted the importance of embracing immigrant populations in his closing remarks, noting, "Immigration is the foundation of this country … Immigration policies should reflect the needs, and not the fears, of this country."

Torres pointed out the vital presence of the Latino community throughout Arlington. "Hispanics account for … 20 percent of Arlington County's population," he said. "The Hispanic influence in our daily lives has not gone unnoticed … in public and private businesses … also caring for our children, building our schools and all their possibilities."

Zimmerman also acknowledged the current controversies regarding immigration, citing it as one of the biggest challenges the Hispanic community faces today.

"I THINK immigrants feel lot of hostility on a national level," Zimmerman said. "Arlington is a haven of tolerance and welcoming — that’s why we’ve become such a great community. I hope more of the rest of the country will recognize the benefits [of immigrants]."

County board member Tejada echoed Zimmerman and Torres, yet he was quick to say that it is just as important to focus on the positive and what members of the Latino community have accomplished, as opposed to solely showcasing their struggles and challenges.

"In contrast to what others have been doing — focusing on the divisive, negative angles of the Latino community, I say, let’s do it the Arlington way — let’s value diversity in a way that is reflected not only in our words, but in the policies enacted," Tejada said.

In his speech, "Latinos Making a Difference in Arlington," Tejada mentioned El Pollo Rico, a once-struggling business on North Kansas Street, that is now prospering, thanks to the activism of county board members and individuals in the Hispanic community.

Tejada also lauded the achievements of staff Sgt. Felix Herrera. Herrera is a graduate of Washington-Lee High School and taught at Wakefield High School. He completed two tours of duty, in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Too many times we focus on the challenges, and not the other 99.9 percent of the population thriving," said Tejada.

Events for Hispanic Heritage Month will include salsa lessons and family-oriented programs at local libraries including Central Library and Columbia Pike Library. The 17th annual Washington Latin American Film Festival, sponsored in part by the American Film Institute, will also take place, as well as Mexican Culture & Arts in D.C.

For more information, including events taking place at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, visit http://www.arlingtonva.us/Departments/Libraries/info/HispanicHeritage/LibrariesInfoHispanicHeritageEvents.aspx#Local.