West Windsor, N.J. – With an eye towards festivity, reflection and unity, Mercer County Community College (MCCC) kicked off its Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration on Monday, Sept. 16. The opening ceremony included a Latin-themed lunch, as well as a presentation by guest speaker Dr. Maria Teresa Montilla.
As students feasted on tostadas, tacos and pastelitos, Montilla, Executive Director of the Institute of Latino Studies in Bloomingdale, started a conversation about the historical significance of Hispanics in North America.
“There has never been a better time to be Latino in America,” Montilla said. “There is a rich history behind our role in building this country, and it is being felt the world over.”
Montilla was born to Dominican parents and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 14. Though her family carried Latin tradition with them, Montilla said she first felt the influence of her heritage when she was graduating high school.
“I went to my guidance counselor and asked for some college applications,” she recalled. “But the response I was met with wasn’t supportive. My counselor told me, ‘Why don’t you consider a work-study program instead?’”
Montilla told her father about the interaction, who promptly explained to the counselor that his daughter was going to college.
“I remember him saying, ‘You don’t have the gray-matter, or the authority, to decide that for her,’” Montilla remembers.
Thus, Montilla, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Thomas Edison State College before earning two master’s degrees (New Covenant International University and Fairleigh Dickinson University) and a doctorate (New Covenant International University), encourages students to take ownership of their culture and pursue their passions.
During the question and answer segment Spanish Professor Daniel D’Arpa, acknowledged that despite the support of leaders like Montilla, Hispanic people often have to justify their stake in America.
“People of Hispanic heritage can certainly bring it when we talk about our claim to this land,” he said. “But when will we stop having to defend our right to belong?”
Citing America’s history of the acceptance and rejection of groups, Montilla noted that it’s not a matter of when Latin American’s can stop justifying their equality.
“Hispanics or otherwise, I don’t think any group will ever stop justifying why they are here,” she said. “It is our duty to continue to educate and tell people why we belong.”
Hispanic Heritage Month at MCCC continues on Thursday, Sept. 19 during the Annual Fall Club Day. Held from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the West Windsor Campus’ Quad and in the Student Center, students can meet with representatives from Mercer’s clubs and extracurricular activities, enjoy fare from Chevere’s Latin food truck, partake in Salsa dancing lessons, and more.
To view a photo album from the event, click here.