In honor of National Hispanic American Heritage Month, members of the local Hispanic community reminisced about their heritage and what their culture means in their lives today.
In Wharton County, Hispanics and Latinos make up about 43 percent of the population, according to 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage is higher for El Campo alone, at about 55 percent of the city’s population of 11,539.
Anisa Longoria Vasquez, a member of El Campo’s city council, is a third generation Latina. She, her parents and her grandparents are U.S. citizens, but she has Mexican heritage.
“Most of my cultural experiences are also family traditions like large family get-togethers surrounded by an abundance of food and memories of being in the kitchen with my granny and tons of cousins while my aunts are preparing meals,” Vasquez said.
In Vasquez’ experience, family is a large part of Hispanic culture, and her parents taught the importance of hard work, faith, education and serving the community. She is proud of her heritage and encourages others to celebrate their own.
“Young people, our community needs to know and understand our diversity – who we are and where we came from,” she said. “It’s important for all ethnicities to have a voice and for others to know and embrace our differences.”
Hispanic American Heritage month started on Sept. 15 and ended on Oct. 15, according to HispanicHeritagemonth.gov. It has been celebrated in the U.S. since 1988. Prior to that, “Hispanic Heritage Week” was celebrated from 1968 before the holiday was expanded to a 30 day period.
El Campoan Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez left a substantial legacy in his hometown after being awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. Years after their father’s death, Benavidez’ three children, Yvette Garcia, Denise Prochazka and Noel Benavidez, aim to learn more about their ancestry.
“Growing up, I always knew my fair complexion and freckles came from my mom’s Irish side of the family and my fierce, never give up, attitude came from my dad’s Yaqui side,” Garcia said.
Yaquis are Native American people that come from areas of what is now Texas, western Mexico and Arizona. The Benevidez family also traces its lineage to Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico.
“Knowing and understanding my family heritage is very important, as it is the customs and traditions of family values that have been bestowed upon us, and passed down to us from generations in the past,” Prochazka said.
The Benevidez’ family name can be traced back to 16th Century Spain, according to Noel. Noel and his siblings are descended from people who were involved with the founding of the Texas cities Victoria and Benavides.
“I do not wait for Hispanic American Heritage Month to roll around to reflect on the core values that my parents instilled in me and my sisters or to recognize the generations of Latinos that have contributed to the development of our nation, our state and our local community,” Noel said.
Like many of its residents, the town of El Campo has a history rich in Hispanic influence as well. The very name of the town is Spanish for “The Camp,” named by Mexican cowboys who moved herds of cattle along the railroad.
El Campoan Mary Arredondo has worked with the Hispanic Education Project, an effort to encourage Hispanic students to advance their education, for more than 20 years. Both of her parents were born and raised in Texas while her grandparents were from Spain and Mexico.
“Hispanics are family-oriented and a person can feel the love at any mama’s table,” Arredondo said. “During any visit to Mamasita’s house, you will always be showered with the best foods and the best uplifting music.”
Arredondo hopes young Hispanics will celebrate their culture and family traditions as the generations before them did.
“Never forget where you come from,” Arredondo said. “Be proud of family, faith, culture, history, and traditions. Educate yourself on Hispanics who make a difference in your world and those throughout history. Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are based on the color of your skin.”
Cindy Hernandez, who won the primary election bid for the Wharton County tax assessor-collector position in March, grew up in Wharton, but her paternal grandparents were migrant workers from Mexico.
Hernandez’ grandmother, who was born in San Benito, is the reason she learned Spanish, which comes in handy when communicating with customers at her job.
“She spoke primarily Spanish, so the only way I could communicate with her was to learn Spanish,” Hernandez said. “I grew up next door to her … so we could take care of her, and I would spend most of my days there.”
Hernandez traces her lineage to Mexico, and she celebrates her heritage through her faith and her cooking. She attends Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Wharton and loves making homemade empanadas, Mexican rice and even Mexican wedding cookies for special occasions.
“I laugh and tell people all the time that I can’t make a pot of white rice to save my life, but I can make Mexican rice 100 different ways,” Hernandez said.
Terri Beltran is involved with St. Robert’s Catholic Church, serving as court regent and a chairman for holiday projects. Christmas time traditions are Beltran’s favorite ways to honor her Hispanic heritage, which stems from Guadalajara.
“In my home, we honor especially the Christmas holiday,” Beltran said. “We have our empanadas, we have our Posadas, which is the nine-day pilgrimage from house to house … My grandmother was very religious. She was very faithful to her rosary.”
She has passed on the Posadas traditions to her children and now her grandchildren. Beltran believes it is imperative to keep traditions like these alive and teach younger generations about them.
“It’s important for us not to forget our families and what they went through to keep their faith,” Beltran said. “Especially in this time where it seems like everything you see, via the media or social media, it’s like they’re wanting to take God out of our families. Right now you need your family. It’s so important.”