The fight over illegal immigration exploded last spring with Latinos taking to the streets across America, derailing - at least temporarily - federal legislation that would have made their families and those who support them felons.
But as Hispanic Heritage Month begins today, Baldemar Velasquez, the founder and president of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said he doesn't want the issue swept under the rug until after the November elections.
FLOC, one of the leading unions for migrant farm workers, will hold its 10th triannual constitutional convention Sept. 30 at the SeaGate Centre downtown, where Mr. Velasquez wants to hold visiting candidates accountable on the issue of immigration rights.
Issues like immigration will be interspersed with cultural celebrations as northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan observe national Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs to Oct. 15.
President Lyndon B. Johnson established Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. Two decades later, the observance was expanded to a month-long commemoration from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, similar in length to the annual Black History Month observance in February.
Hispanic Awareness Month celebrates the culture and traditions of U.S. residents who trace their roots to Spain and Spanish-speaking nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
The unusual midmonth starting point for Hispanic Awareness Month was chosen to spotlight the independence anniversaries of several Latin American counties, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua on Sept. 15, Mexico on Sept. 16, and Chile on Sept. 18.
The convention also comes at a time when FLOC is celebrating what it considers one of its greatest victories, the 20th anniversary of winning its first labor contract with Campbell Soup after eight years of strikes and boycotts. About 600 FLOC delegates are expected to come together at the convention, Mr. Velasquez said.
David Ibarra, president of Toledo's Hispanic Affairs Commission, said the month is an opportunity to celebrate the various Hispanic cultures within the community.
"It's a chance for Latinos to highlight the positive elements of our culture and contributions to the American fabric," said Mr. Ibarra, an associate principal at Washington Local's Whitmer High School. "We've made a lot of contributions, and we're pretty integrated into the community. It's an opportunity to share those things we bring to the society."
Josh Flores, a Spanish teacher at Toledo Public's Waite High School in East Toledo, said he enjoys sharing his experience of being a Latino in America and serving as a positive role model for students.
"As a teacher, I can highlight the contributions and give some insight on issues as well," Mr. Flores said. "We can be proud of who we are, and not ashamed, the way my dad felt in the 1950s. He was funneled through special education classes because he spoke Spanish."
Adrianna Escareno, 17, a senior at Waite, said she believes Hispanic youth have far more pride about their culture today. She said it is up to individual families to continue to foster cultural traditions and history.
Manny Martinez, another 17-year-old senior, said people his age should do more to help younger Latino youth.
"We have it hard enough in school with the highest drop-out rate," Manny said. "Hispanic teenagers try to do the best they can just to prove the statistics wrong. I think we can have seniors and juniors go back and talk to those in junior high, or even elementary, and have conversations and make them realize how important it is to be proud."
Sonia Troche, executive director of Adelante, Inc., and a native of Puerto Rico, said Latinos from different countries may have their different traditions, but see this month as a reason for everyone to celebrate.
"From my personal perspective, we celebrate the same things as far as highlighting our food, our dance, and our culture," Ms. Troche said. "We celebrate the successes of our communities."
But Mr. Flores said he believes recent battles nationally over immigration issues have cast a negative light on the entire Latino community, regardless of where individual Latinos are from. At the same time, he said, immigration has become a rallying point that has brought together Latinos from all walks of life.
"I think it's created a sense of unity," Mr. Flores said. "Whether you are here illegally or not, all of our families migrated here. We are a part of the culture here and contribute to it."
Ms. Troche said she hopes the month will help shine a positive light on Hispanic culture and show the community its vast diversity as well as its contributions to America. "I hope they see that the Latino community, whether they are from Puerto Rico, Mexico, or any Latin American country, has always been a friend to the U.S., but also more people are exposed to our values and traditions," she said.
Contact Clyde Hughes