Living in the United States has meant a level of personal safety that his native country, El Salvador, could never provide, said Roosevelt High School senior Jonathan Melgar.
“I can study without the threat of anything bad happening," Melgar, 18, said Tuesday night at the high school's Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. "I can have a future.”
He was one of a dozen students who performed a dance routine to traditional music from El Salvador, Mexico and South America before an audience of about 300 — students, teachers and parents — at the school’s auditorium.
The event featured a variety of performances, including an indoor parade with students waving a dozen flags from Latin America along with the Stars and Stripes. Students read poems or crooned songs in both Spanish and English. A group of teenagers danced to popular reggaeton songs, such as Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.”
Roosevelt High School principal Brodrick Spencer said that out of 1,100 students on campus, two-thirds are Hispanic, with many coming from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Puerto Rico.
“Hispanic culture is all of our culture. We have to learn more about diversity and how it surrounds everyone,” Spencer said.
Students who have emigratedfrom Latin American countries to Long Island and enroll at Roosevelt immediately come up against numerous challenges, Spencer said. Some students face a steep learning curve because of the difficulty of mastering English. Others come from homes where parents have limited education or must live with the stress of being in the United States illegally, Spencer said.
Many of these students have overcome these obstacles, Spencer said. In fact, he said his school is a campus laboratory of this country's eternal promise.
“You have people chasing the American dream and that is what this country is supposed to be about," the principal said. "We are a true melting pot.”
Ana Burgio, a teacher in the school’s English Language Learner’s program, said there are about 350 students enrolled in the program at Roosevelt. Burgio has worked with about 100 students the past month planning for Tuesday’s performances.
“It’s validation,” Burgio said. “Showcasing immigration is not a threat. Immigration is a blessing.”
Burgio said she relishes her students’ success.
“It’s the most rewarding present and experience to see them," she said. "We are all about them fulfilling their vision.”
For Melgar, his vision — being able to attend high school without the constant threat of violence — began three years ago when he fled El Salvador for Long Island with an older brother. The threat of gang violence in his native country was as predictable each day as the rising and setting of the sun.
Melgar somehow survived but his half-brother met a darker fate. He was murdered in El Salvador, Melgar said.
Tuesday night, Melgar was able to show El Salvador's deep cultural roots. He and five male students were dressed identically in white-collared shirts and wore hats popular among campesinos, or rural Latinos. Melgar and his compadres paired up with six female students who wore traditional flowing dresses in blue and white, representing El Salvador’s national colors.
The students moved in perfect synchronization, dancing to traditional music from El Salvador, Mexico and South America.
Melgar said celebrating Hispanics is important because it is a way to preserve many Roosevelt students' heritage.
“We can remember our culture from our country,” Melgar said.