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OCCHA marks 50th year with big celebration

YOUNGSTOWN — Benito Velazquez shared the story of how his father left a trail of pebbles on the route he took from his home to his job at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. so that he would be able to find his way back after work.

That’s because after arriving in the Mahoning Valley in the early 1950s from Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, in search of a better life, Velazquez’s father had no vehicle. Worse, he faced the hardships that often accompany being unable to read and write, having to assimilate to a new culture without speaking English and trying to get by with a limited amount of education.

Nevertheless, he found work in the railroad industry, then for the former Sheet & Tube Co., Republic Steel Co. and Youngstown Steel Door. He also was not about to allow his two children to face similar difficulties, Velazquez, of Boardman, remembered.

“My dad instilled in us the importance of education. My dad had a sixth-grade education,” he told an audience of several dozen who attended a special program Thursday evening to celebrate 50 years of the Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana (OCCHA) organization in the Valley.

The one-hour gathering was at the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor (the Steel Museum), 151 W. Wood St., which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

In addition, his father often was looked down upon and faced discrimination because of his inability to speak English, said Velazquez, who has been associated with OCCHA since his childhood.

Antonio Crespo, 88, of Youngstown, arrived in the city in 1952 after his brother had sent for him from Crespo’s native Puerto Rico. He helped raise seven children.

“When I came here, I was lost,” Crespo recalled. “It was tough; it was really hard.”

Crespo also remembered the bustling foot traffic on many city streets around 5 p.m. each afternoon, when many steelworkers got off work. Over time, he began to appreciate the variety of cultures in the Valley and instead of feeling isolated, Crespo found himself in a situation where it “felt more like a big family,” he continued.

The keynote speaker was Angelica Diaz, OCCHA’s executive director, who noted that Latino families came to the region from Puerto Rico, Mexico and elsewhere beginning in the 1920s.

“They came to the Valley with one purpose: Many of them came to work,” Diaz explained.

In its early years, OCCHA largely addressed a slew of issues and problems many area Latino families faced. That has morphed into a host of programs and services aimed at improving the quality of economic, cultural, social and educational life for Latino people and others in multicultural communities.

They include English as a Second Language classes, in partnership with Eastern Gateway Community College. Thirty-five students are in the courses, she said.

OCCHA also hosts a food and clothing program for families in need, along with a food pantry those with low incomes can visit once or twice monthly, Diaz noted.

In addition, summer camps provide opportunities for families to embark on field trips and have agencies share their offerings. About 51 students were on five such trips this summer, Diaz continued.

OCCHA also seeks to assist families who may have everyday pressing needs — everything from needing an important document interpreted to filling out a job application to needing help paying rent, she noted.

“We value education, and we want our students to go on and earn their degrees,” Diaz said, referring to OCCHA’s scholarship program that has awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships largely to Latino students.

Other offerings include a Hispanic health program, in partnership with Mercy Health.

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that provides free blood screenings, and a mental health navigation program to connect families with such community resources, she explained.

“As you can see, OCCHA does a lot for the community,” Diaz said.

Many Latinos continue to come to the area mainly because their families are rooted here, and because of the low cost of living, she noted.

The executive director also discussed a book written in 1999, titled, “A Tribute to the Hispanic Pioneers,” in which about 40 people share their stories about coming to the Valley in the early and mid-20th century.

The book is important also because some young people grow up in homes where only Spanish is spoken, which can cause them to feel separated from their communities. It’s vital that they know many of their ancestors had left their footprints in the region, Diaz said.

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