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Hispanic festival in Westbury reflects community change

Westbury held their fifth annual Hispanic Heritage Festival on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, as a way for residents to enjoy a diverse day of fun, culture and free food. (Credit: Steve Pfost)

For Gladys Turcios, a Hispanic heritage celebration in Westbury would have been a rare sight fifteen years ago when she first moved to the village that was comprised mostly of Italian and Irish Americans.

But Westbury’s new demographics were heralded Sunday at the annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration. Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro said that a record 250 people attended the five-year-old festival, which was moved to a larger space outside of St. Brigid/Our Lady of Hope Regional School, to accommodate for larger crowds, flamenco dancers, free Latin cuisine, and a pinata, Cavallaro said.

Turcios, 33, a Honduras-born mother of four, said the Hispanic outreach is appreciated by members of the fast-growing community.

“They have more opportunities, more events going on for them,” Turcios, 33, said, referring to programming for her four children, ranging from ages 5, 6, 10 and 14. “This wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for the Hispanic community.”

Westbury village officials, in an effort to embrace a growing number of Hispanic residents in the past decade, formed an advisory committee in 2011 that advises the mayor and other village leaders.

The Hispanic population in Westbury was nearly 29 percent of the village in 2014. In 2000, Hispanics represented 19 percent of the village’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro said the event is “an attempt to have outreach to a group that’s hard to have outreach to.”

Cavallaro said his goal has been to include more Hispanic members into village-wide conversations. “They’re busy people trying to earn a living, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time to go to community meetings,” Cavallaro said in an interview at the festival on Sunday.

Julie Lyon, president of the Greater Westbury Arts Council, said officials have worked to create “a cultural Mecca” in Westbury. Concerts in the village’s piazza now include Latin Big Bands, and Sunday’s festival featured performances from local Latin dance schools.

Westbury School Board Trustee Pedro Quintanilla, 46, who emigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador during a period of Civil War, recalled that few Hispanics were in leadership posts in the public sector when he moved into the village 26 years ago.

Quintanilla, who was was elected to serve as a school board trustee earlier this year, said Sunday that “now we are in all levels — as we should.”

Still others outlined other needs the community has that must be addressed. Felix Jacinto, 33, who has lived in Westbury for seven years, said there should be more information available regarding immigration services and job opportunities. Jacinto, who praised Sunday’s festivities, said “we need more events like that.”

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