Hispanics come together for annual gathering

COLUMBIA — “Our family is growing, and it is good for the family to get together once in a while,” said Norma Casarez, one of coordinators of the second annual Diocesan Hispanic Cultural Celebration held at St. John Neumann Dec. 7. The event attracted more than 500 Hispanics and friends to Columbia.

This year’s theme, “Acogiendo al Forastero Entre Nosotros: Unidad en la Diversidad” (Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity), was a fitting description as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, South Americans, Cubans, Panamanians, Guatemalans and other Latin American Catholics in the diocese proudly shared their culture through music, dance and cuisine.

“For me this celebration is worth it. Even though we all speak Spanish, we still have differences, and an event like this one brings us all together,” said Maria Martinez from St. John Neumann. “I also like to be able to talk about religion. It gives me motivation to hear the people speak and express their great love for the Virgin Mother. All the singing and the Mass gives me energy to keep on going.”

It was a special occasion for Ana Santana, also a member of St. John Neumann Church, and for Casarez and her mother, Petra, because they can remember when they were among only six Puerto Rican families trying to initiate a Spanish Mass in Columbia nearly 25 years ago.

“The pastor at that time only knew how to say the ‘Our Father’ in Spanish, but he soon learned enough to say the Mass in Spanish,” recalled Santana, who was the food coordinator for this year’s event.

With the help of about 60 volunteer cooks, Santana provided a huge spread of all kinds of authentic Hispanic dishes. For example, almost 700 tamales were made and consumed that day.

There were a large number of children and young adults attending the celebration. Karina Carrillo, who has lived 13 of her 19 years in the United States, still misses her native country but would not want to move back.

“In Mexico, many of the children cannot go to school because everyone has to work to put food on the table. Some of the young people here don’t understand how good they have it. We are encouraged to go to school and don’t have to work under those conditions,” said Carrillo.

The celebration brought back fond memories for 11-year-old Stephanie Perez from St. John of the Cross, who attended with her family. Coming from an active Hispanic community in Los Angeles, she recalled similar gatherings in California, especially on Marian feast days. She especially enjoyed the midnight procession on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Bishop Robert J. Baker expressed his gratitude to all the people who organized the celebration.

In his homily, which he delivered in Spanish, he said, “This annual reunion of the Hispanic community of the Charleston Diocese is a special opportunity to celebrate and appreciate the rich faith you bring to help our church.”

Father Filemon Juya, vicar for Hispanics and parochial vicar of St. John of the Cross in Batesburg, took this opportunity to present to the bishop the first draft of the pastoral plan for the Hispanic community. He said that South Carolina is one of the states with the highest growth in the Hispanic community. Including the undocumented immigrants, Hispanics will soon be the majority in the Catholic community in the diocese.

He said the pastoral plan “was created from the grass roots of the Hispanic reality in South Carolina. Thus it is from the people, with the people and for the people.”

The plan has three chapters dealing with evangelization, social action and liturgy/prayer. He said the main goal of the plan is to help this growing community become a strong evangelizing body that will be a blessing to the diocese.

“Thank you for your support and your shepherd’s love for this wandering flock. Thanks for coming here and allowing us to share with you our love for our Blessed Mother. We are proud of having such a powerful Mother. We put our plan at her feet. With her and with her Divine Child we have all we need, and we feel safe in the Diocese of Charleston which is now our home,” said Father Juya.