For fourth-grade bilingual educator Nicole Cotto, who teaches at Bridgeport’s Cesar Batalla School, “Celebrating the Hispanic culture of our students and teachers and the diversity within that culture shows our kids we are with them.”
Wrapped in the flag of Puerto Rico and dressed in its colors, Cotto (pictured at right), who serves as the social chair for the Bridgeport Education Association (BEA), was one of the many educators who helped organize a special reception in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, an effort led by BEA President Ana Batista.
The program—Heritage, Diversity, Integrity, and Honor: The Renewed Hope of America—was a coordinated effort of BEA, CEA, and the Bridgeport Board of Education.
“There are a lot of educators in this room who work very hard each year during Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 to October 15, to give students an opportunity to perform in front of the community and their parents,” said Batista. “We love to be able to celebrate and be proud of who we are.”
Expressing her gratitude to those teachers and her own parents, Priscilla Vargas, a junior at Central High School, described her family’s journey as they moved to the United States from Costa Rica.
“They started out living in a basement in New Jersey, but they always had hope for a better future,” she said.
Vargas was born after her family moved to Bridgeport, where they spent the first 10 years of her life in an attic.
“My parents have worked very hard for me and my brother and always had hope that we would be successful.” Her brother, a political science major at UConn, participated in the Senate page program as a high school junior in Bridgeport, and served as an assistant for Senator Chris Murphy.
“One day, I also hope to go to university and build a career counseling children and teens,” she told the educators gathered in the room. “Muchas gracias!”
‘Walk beside us’
Hector Rios, a guest at the reception and an ESL teacher at Batalla School for the past 16 years, said, “As a Puerto Rican, celebrating our heritage and culture is so important. We are role models for our students.”
Like Rios and other educators in the room, Natasha DiPiro, a 21-year veteran talented and gifted teacher, grew up learning English as a second language.
“It’s encouraging for my students to know this,” she said, “because when they see me, they say, ‘I can do it as well.’”
“As our theme is hope amid a pandemic that was the worst thing for teachers and students, this evening is an opportunity to demonstrate that even though we are overwhelmed, and our students are too, we have not given up on them,” said BEA Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission (EMAC) Chair Jerushia Wrighten-Kelly, a second-grade teacher at P.L. Dunbar School. “The educational process will continue, and we will regain normalcy.”
EMAC’s goal, she added, is to promote ethnic minority teacher involvement in all areas of BEA, CEA, and NEA by mentoring, providing training, and encouraging participation at all levels of the association.
“As a teacher leader who has advanced over my years with EMAC, I can attest to the growth and development this commission has provided me and numerous members in this audience, including BEA’s president. We all came through EMAC together.”
Wrighten-Kelly encouraged guests to log onto CEA’s website and peruse the many commissions and committees that allow professional educators to explore and develop their interests and advocacy. “We need you to walk beside us, leading the way toward hope for our children and our fellow educators.”
The Hispanic heritage reception was held at Circolo Sportivo Italian American Club—established by previous generations of immigrants—and tables were decorated with the flags of Spanish-speaking countries and territories. Accompanying the centerpieces were cards describing each place and its distinguishing features.
“Bridgeport is a very special place, with so many cultural events taking place, and it’s always a joy to get to come out and pass the time with our members,” CEA President Kate Dias told guests. “Where else do you come to the Italian club to have a Hispanic heritage night? I honor that Bridgeport is putting an emphasis on the wonderful diversity of its community and the things that make it shine—especially all the people here who have committed their lives to making Bridgeport a strong community for students. I really appreciate BEA President Ana Batista and the opportunity she and her committee have put together.”
The evening’s keynote speaker was Oscar Michelen, a law professor and trial attorney who works to reverse wrongful convictions. A Dominican immigrant, he described his roots under a brutal dictatorship and his upbringing by a father who was a doctor, veterinarian, and shoemaker all in one. When the family moved to the Bronx, where Michelen began attending school, his father told him that stories about historical figures such as George Washington would be plentiful. Instead, he counseled his son, “Talk about Pablo Neruda.”
“We are united by more than our common language but also a heritage in which our countries came under tyrannical leadership. We should never stop educating our youth about the heritage of our countries—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If it’s the truth, it cannot be wrong. What I hope is that we continue to spread the message in our schools that our culture is deep.”
A highlight of the evening was an original rap song, “Esperanza,” composed and performed by CEA teacher-turned-administrator Herminio (Tito) Planas. “All students have the right to learn, you see,” he sang, “You teachers have power to help them succeed. You’re their savior, their north star, their advocates and heroes. So when you see a kid that reminds you of me, just think about their future your hard work can achieve—esperanza.”
Following a traditional Spanish meal, musical group Orquesta Afinke raised the roof with the sounds of salsa, plena, cumbia, samba, and merengue.