MOUNT VERNON — At lunchtime Thursday, Mount Vernon High School hosted something of a celebration.
In the waning days of summer, the courtyard in the middle of the school’s campus was filled with music, color and food as the school ushered in the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month.
“This is a great example that yes, every student matters here,” said Mount Vernon School District Director of Equity and Inclusion David Rodriguez.
Established as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the week was expanded to a monthlong celebration by President Ronald Reagan to celebrate the culture and contributions of people with Hispanic and Latino heritage.
“You cannot go to a city anywhere in the U.S. without finding a delicious taco truck, or pupusa shop or other Latin cuisine,” Mount Vernon City Council member Juan Morales said of the widespread contributions of the culture.
In fact, he said, more people in the United States speak Spanish than almost anywhere else in the world.
“That just proves all the beauty we have in the cultural representation of Latinos,” Morales said.
A 2014 Mount Vernon High School graduate, Morales said such celebrations didn’t exist when he attended the school. He’s happy to see that today’s students have the ability to celebrate their heritage with their classmates.
Rodriguez said, “It gives (students) that sense of belonging. For many of them, this is what will keep them coming back the next day and the next day.”
Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off each year on Sept. 16, which is Mexican Independence Day.
While it’s a common misconception that Mexican Independence Day falls on May 5 — Cinco de Mayo — the holiday is actually Sept. 16, the day in 1810 when Mexico declared its independence from Spain, said Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Ismael Vivanco.
“It makes my heart happy to be able to provide events like this that honors our students’ language, culture and background,” Vivanco said. “I want to do this for all of our students.”
In recent years, the district has made an effort to celebrate all of its students’ cultural backgrounds, including by celebrating Slavic and Native American history months.
“What’s really important is being able to belong, without having to give up your own personal identity,” Vivanco said. “The more we can celebrate each other’s differences and get to know each other, there will be more unity in our community.”
Mount Vernon High School Principal Terri Wattawa said that because it’s coming off a stretch when most learning was done online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school knew it needed to do something to re-engage its students and welcome them back to campus.
“We need to re-establish our school community,” Wattawa said. “Our theme this year is ‘Be here, Be you, Belong.’”
Sixty percent of the school is of Hispanic or Latino background, Wattawa said.
“This is a great way for us to celebrate our differences,” Wattawa said. “And share in our similarities.”