TAMPA — Originally, they came from Spain, Cuba, Panama and the Dominican Republic. They pursued a better life and the opportunity to become productive citizens in their new country.
That has always been defined as the "American Dream.''
So fittingly, during Tuesday night's town hall meeting at Alonso High School, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor instituted what she hopes will become an annual event. Castor presented "American Dream Awards'' to five citizens who have made a difference in education, health care, business, the media and government.
In making the presentation, the Tampa Democrat pointed to the rally Saturday by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Virginia.
"I could not think of a better way to kick off an evening than to celebrate the diversity in this community,'' said Castor, the Tampa Democrat. "A lot of you watched what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are many who are angry, outraged, saddened, scared.
"We haven't really seen anything like that. But we're going to show that isn't what this community is about. We reject that type of hatred. We're going to celebrate our diversity.''
The honorees and their categories included:
•Victor Fernandez, educator: Originally from Spain, Fernandez served in the Hillsborough County School District for 35 years, becoming assistant principal and principal at Pierce Middle School and Leto High School, which have some of the county's largest populations of Hispanic students.
• Maria Jimenez, health care: Originally from the Dominican Republic, Jimenez has been a healthcare navigator through the University of South Florida and a leader in helping Spanish-speaking families and small businesses understand how they could best utilize the Affordable Care Act. Jimenez's work was portrayed as a model by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
• Carlos Jose Peralta, media: Originally from Cuba, Peralta has been a radio personality on Spanish-language radio stations, often announcing toy drives for local hospitals and informing Hispanic listeners about job openings. Peralta is now the Community Outreach Coordinator at Lutheran Services Florida.
• Tery Sanchez, government: Originally from Cuba, Sanchez has served Castor for 15 years as legislative aide, caseworker and director of constituent services, often helping immigrant families with federal benefits and services.
• Roberto Torres, business: Originally from Panama, Torres is co-founder and managing partner of Black & Denim Apparel Company and the Blind Tiger Cafe in Tampa. He won a local business competition that provided the startup funds he needed to begin.
During the presentation, each of the honorees dabbed at their eyes or fought back tears.
"I want to return to the community what I have been receiving since I came to this country,'' Jimenez said. "I believe in service. My family is here and I have wanted to be an example for them and the whole community.''
"I want to encourage each of you to continue believing in the American Dream,'' Fernandez said. "Yes, we can. We need to maintain perseverance in what we're doing.''
Torres, visibly moved, had to compose himself as he thanked Castor.
"I came to this country in 1995 by myself,'' Torres said. "My mom is in Panama with my sister and brother. I never, ever imagined that someone from the federal government like yourself would recognize what I was sent to do.''
Castor used the event to take questions from the crowd of 250 people, many of whom were immigrants. She brought along a panel comprised of Stephanie Garza, regional director of For Florida's Future, a community action group; Esteban Garces, Florida state director of Mi Familia Vota, which works to increase Latino voting; and Adriana Dinis, an immigration attorney.
Castor's message was involvement and advocacy.
"You saw what advocacy could do when it came to protecting affordable health care … why not immigration?'' said Castor, who favors comprehensive immigration reform. "The ability for people to work here legally, get on a pathway to legal status where you have to undergo a background check. You have to pay fines and application fees. You have to learn English. You have to pass citizenship tests.
"It would be a very difficult path, but it would be very important to maintain family units and families all across the country.''
Castor said progressive change on immigration — or any issue — requires "active citizens'' who provide feedback and direction for their legislators.
"It's never been easier to communicate with your elected officials because everyone is on Twitter and Facebook. You need to be on those things. … Make an appointment to see your elected official. Be persistent. Make them hear you out. … That's what we do in this country. Your voice can be heard.''
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]