Achieving the American Dream Town honors locals at Hispanic Heritage Month celebration
By Anthony Rifilato
With honorees ranging from an El Salvadoran restaurant owner in Baldwin who worked his way up from dishwasher to an Oceanside resident from Uruguay who provides assistance to Hispanic immigrants, last week's ceremony painted a vivid picture of those who have attained what they called the "American dream."
"Certainly, we are proud of our history and language," said keynote speaker Gil Bernardino, executive director of Circulo de la Hispanidad, a community rights advocacy group based in Long Beach. Bernardino expressed a sense of unity among the diverse cultures, saying that from Spain to Mexico, "We share a common language."
With nearly 300 people in attendance, including town officials and guests, Town Supervisor Kate Murray told the audience that in the past 14 years, the Hispanic population of the U.S. has ballooned to 39 million, 14 percent of the nation's population and its largest minority group. On Long Island, she said, one out of 10 people are of Spanish descent.
"They have so many inspiring stories," Murray said. "There is such a broad spectrum of people doing great things."
Among those honored were Baldwin resident Sandra Cecilia Hassan, chief educational officer of the Roosevelt Middle/High School; Jose Pastrana, a Valley Stream resident and property manager of the Valley Park Estates; and Dr. Sergio Suarez, a Woodmere resident who practices internal medicine in Freeport.
One inspiring story was that of honoree Seferino Salmeron, a Merrick resident and owner of A Touch of Italy restaurant in Baldwin. Salmeron came to the U.S. from El Salvador 30 years ago, where he found work as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant. Eventually he learned how to prepare Italian cuisine. After years of toiling in the kitchen, Salmeron opened a restaurant of his own.
"Today, A Touch of Italy is a restaurant run by the whole Salmeron family," said Brad Holland, the ceremony's emcee.
Afterward, Salmeron, who is a member of the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and donates food and money to various organizations, said he was overwhelmed by the recognition and being called a role model. "I was honored, and it was a very good ceremony," he said humbly as he left with family and friends.
Another honoree was Amalia Schachner, an Oceanside resident and co-coordinator of the Aid to Foreign Born program for the Five Towns Community Center in Lawrence. She was honored for her assistance to foreign migrs as well as her service on a number of committees.
The Aid to Foreign Born program provides services and counseling to roughly 10,000 immigrants a year, said Schachner, who's originally from Uruguay. When she started working with the program over 35 years ago, it helped mostly Italian immigrants. Times have changed, she said, and today 90 percent of assistance is given to Hispanics. Like Italians, today's Hispanic immigrants will climb the social ladder, she said, something very apparent at the ceremony.
"It's really an honor," Schachner said. "We [Aid to Foreign Born] are working so much."
Town Clerk Mark Bonilla shared Schachner's sentiments. Bonilla's family hails from Puerto Rico, and his father worked as a janitor. He said that his parents instilled in him a very strong work ethic, and that celebrating the achievements of those in the Hispanic community sends the right message. "It sends a message to kids that anything is possible," Bonilla said. "If you work hard and do the best you can, good things will always come."
In his remarks, Bernadino repeated the importance of unity in the Hispanic community. Following a number of attacks on Mexican day laborers and immigrants on Long Island in the past few months, Bernardino said it is time for government leaders to do more to address the issue, and for Hispanics themselves to look beyond cultural differences within their diverse community. "Let's not let anybody separate us as Hispanics," he said.
Bernardino noted that one day, many immigrants will eventually move on from the street corners where they await work as day laborers and attain the American dream, something exemplified by the honorees. He hopes that the sentiment expressed by some that Hispanics should leave the country will diminish. "By having this celebration, it sends a message to the larger community," he said afterward. "We're here to stay."