PATERSON, NJ - Peru is nearly 3500 miles from Paterson, yet when Amy Zavatela, 13, practices and performs Marinera Nortena, a variation of the native dance of the South American country, she feels “close” to the homeland of her parents and other family.

“It gives me an opportunity to express myself in ways I can’t with other actions,” Amy told TAPinto Paterson just minutes after she’d finished performing in front of Paterson City Hall on Sunday.

The celebration, spearheaded by City Council President Martiza Davila, served as a kickoff to Hispanic Heritage Month, and included a number of song and dance performances reminiscent of those traditionally found in Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia.

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While Paterson’s recognition of the month that celebrates the more 53 million Hispanics that live across the United States has traditionally started later, Davila, and others, felt it was important to kick it off on September 15.

In a city that is more than 60 percent Hispanic, Davila said, “we should recognize what these groups have done to make our city better,” pointing to a thriving business community that includes restaurants, bodegas, auto body shops, and many professionals such as doctors and accountants. 

In short, Davila said, “they have made our city more vibrant.”

Another special performance came from 17 dancers that traveled all the way from Chicago, part of an East

Coast trip for Ballet Folklorico that included at least five shows in just a couple of days in celebration of Mexican Independence Day on Monday.

According to Lupita Munoz, one of the group’s directors, their efforts in teaching the teenagers the traditional dances are part of “preserving our tradition.”

“Where would we be without Latinos in the United States,” Mayor Andre Sayegh asked between performances. Sayegh, an avid historian, effortlessly rattled off the names of five Central American countries that celebrate their own independence in the coming days, the reason Hispanic Heritage Month, unlike others, starts mid month and runs until October 15.

Never missing an opportunity to promote the 2020 Census, Sayegh offered that the groups and individuals assembled, including Elsa Mantilla, one of the recognized leaders of the city’s Dominican American community, would play a key role in helping to make sure the city’s population is properly counted. 

“We are on a mission,” Sayegh said. “We are one Paterson with one purpose, to get an accurate count.”

Also on hand was Fifth Ward Councilman Luis Velez who gave an impassioned speech in Spanish, later translated for TAPinto Paterson, imploring community members to continue to pray for their fellow Latinos who have “sacrificed so much for the country we now call home.” 

“Despite roadblocks by the federal government,” he said in a loosely veiled attack against the Administration of President Donald Trump, “we are building an even better United States.”

Asked to consider Paterson’s diversity, and what it means to an eighth grade student growing up in a city that is said to be home to at least 50 different ethnicities, Amy said she felt “accepted.”

“I can walk down the street in my Peru jersey and no one looks at me funny,” she said with a smile. “I feel welcome.”