OCCHA celebrates Latin culture

BOARDMAN -- Sunday marks the end of National Hispanic Heritage month, and some celebrated the Hispanic culture with events at Barnes & Noble Booksellers Saturday afternoon.

A bilingual story time and traditional Puerto Rican dances were part of a fundraiser for Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana, or OCCHA, of Shirley Road, Youngstown.

Executive Director Mary Isa Garayua said the month's events enabled OCCHA to promote the Hispanic community and commemorate the Hispanic culture."

Betty Cuevas and Fiol Smith read stories in English and Spanish to children at the store Saturday. Smith, an OCCHA employee, and Cuevas, a volunteer, read such classics as "La Pequera Locomotria que si Puedo" ("The Little Engine that Could"), "Buenas Noches, Luna" ("Good Night, Moon"), and "Si le Das una Galletita a un Raton" ("If You Give a Mouse a Cookie").

A small crowd of children gathered around. They listened as Cuevas read a page of a story in English, followed by Smith's reading of the same page in Spanish. Beyond the storytelling circle was a table of books for children and young adults in Spanish, with literature about OCCHA available.

Smith also has helped to create a bilingual library at OCCHA, where parents can borrow books in English and Spanish.

"We really want parents to start reading to their kids so they'll be ready when it's time to learn how to read," Smith said.

Another part of OCCHA is the youth group, which Garayua said involves about 50 to 70 children and teens. One recent addition to that group has been Latin Roots -- about 22 middle and high school students who learn and perform traditional Latin dances.

Four girls and four boys from Latin Roots performed four dances for their families and other book store customers.

Dancers Lillian Rosaro, 18, and Christian Melendez, 15, said they had been dancing their whole lives, but started dancing with Latin Roots when it was created about a year ago after OCCHA's youth director saw pupils at Woodrow Wilson High School doing traditional Latin dances.

Garayua said Latin Roots is between choreographers at the moment, and the students are currently sharing teachers and helping to teach each other.

Melendez and Rosaro said they enjoy Latin Roots because the traditional dances are fun, but one dancer, Carlos Rodriquez hit on a reason that most of the dancers enthusiastically agreed with.

"It's our culture," Rodriquez, 16, said.

Garayua said most of the dancers' parents are Puerto Rican natives, so the dances mean something more to them.

Saturday's events were part of a fundraiser that allows a group to pass out vouchers to the community that can be used in a Barnes & Noble purchase to give back a portion of the profits to organizations like OCCHA. Proceeds from the fundraiser will go to the agency's various programs and its 34th anniversary fundraiser dinner Friday at Mr. Anthony's in Boardman.

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