Veronica Melgar left her home in El Salvador when she was 15, fleeing from the civil war that was ravaging her country.
“When you have what it takes to survive, you’re unstoppable,” Melgar said Friday at the Jack Abrams Stem Magnet School in Huntington Station during Huntington’s 25th Hispanic Heritage Celebration.
“We learn from adversity, you learn from the pain you go through," she said, addressing the young people in the audience. "You must be ready and prepared and think, ‘everything is possible.’”
The longtime Huntington resident, an educator and member of the town’s Hispanic Task Force, was the keynote speaker. Melgar said as the oldest in a large family in San Salvador, she was responsible for getting her younger siblings to take school seriously and her mother demanded they get high grades.
But when the civil war broke out, getting an education was uncertain, Melgar said. “Day after day, dead bodies appeared through the city. ... The only tool I had was the purpose to survive.”
Melgar said there is no shame in failure. “Failure is just another word for courage,” she said.
Those attending listened to her and other speakers talk about the challenges and contributions of the town’s Hispanic community.
Outside the auditorium, three booths were set up catering to Hispanics for services such as banking, health insurance and legal advice.
And on a lighter note, the audience delighted in students performing Latin-themed musical numbers.
Parents grabbed their cellphones and snapped pictures and took videos when 29 second graders from dual-language classes crooned “This Is My Land” in Spanish. The crowd gave the young singers a standing ovation. A guitar ensemble from Half Hollow Hills High School East in Dix Hills played its rendition of “Oye Como Va,” which also proved popular.
Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson had Latinos in the crowd laughing while endeavoring to speak Spanish and comparing the town’s diversity with an Adobo Goya seasoning commercial.
“Yo tambien encanto la mezcla,” he said, which loosely translates to "I also love the mixture." He continued in English to emphasize his point to others in the crowd of about 275 people who squeezed into the school’s auditorium Friday night.
“I’m not Mexican, not all of us can be Mexican, Salvadoran, Costa Rican or Honduran," Cuthbertson said. "But we all greatly enjoy and benefit from the mix all those people bring to our town, the mix of food, culture, music, everything. It makes for such a better town.”
But the event returned to a more serious tone when Huntington Town Councilwoman Joan Cergol decried the partisan politics in the nation’s capital and the fear it is striking in some of Huntington's Hispanic community.
Cergol said that fear was evident in the disappointingly small turnout among Hispanics when a free mobile-mammogram bus came to the town this past summer. She said some undocumented Hispanics were afraid federal authorities would obtain their information through using the service.
“It is truly heartbreaking and a shame that on Long Island and here in Huntington people are afraid to go about their lives out of fear to the point they are bypassing the types of service that could save their lives,” Cergol said.