WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute quick-started Hispanic Heritage Month at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital this year, capping its two-day public policy conference by attracting 2,100 supporters to a glitzy annual presidential gala Sept. 14.
The celebration, officially spread annually from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, increasingly spills over to fill both months with ethnic festivities.
Sharing the stage with President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama over three days and nights of CHCI festivities and political huddling were 20 members of Congress, dozens of Latino elected and appointed officials drawn from througout the country, entertainers the likes of Luis Enrique and even international royalty.
More than 4,100 persons fed on the extensive menu of events. Some 400 ninth- and tenth-grade students from the Greater Washington,D.C.area who are part of CHCI’s “Ready to Lead” program joined in the workshops and luncheon events.
They were accompanied by members of Congress and top executives from sponsoring companies such as McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Walmart.
This year CHCI attracted more than 100 sponsors with buy-ins ranging up to a quarter of a million dollars. Proceeds from its heritage month activities go to support its leadership, scholarship and numerous other educational programs conducted yearround.
To program and execute a series of activities the magnitude of those undertaken by CHCI requires a staff of 25 working yearround, explained media director Scott Gunderson Rosa.
The 34th annual awards Gala featuring President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was held in the convention center’s 100,000 square-foot ballroom.
Democratic congressional members Ben Ray Luján N.M.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), along with Ivelisse Estrada of Univisión and Frank Ros of Coca-Cola, helped pick the topics and panelists for this year’s workshops.
“What makes the night special is that we have powerful leaders joined together for a common purpose to support the dreams and aspirations of Latino youth,” explained CHCI President Esther Aguilara to Hispanic Link News Service.
Since 1978, CHCI has strived to “keep the promise of the American dream alive through unity, strength and leadership,” she said, quoting this year’s framed goal.
In the last two years, more than 20,000 students applied for the fellowship and scholarship programs CHCI offers. The programs’ efforts, althoughextensive, could only reach 1,300 of those students.
Through this new “Keeping the Promise” strategic plan, CHCI has set a target to double the funds available from $6 million to $12 million in the next 5 years, says Gunderson Rosa. This, he noted, is to help meet the demand of tomorrow’s workforce where one out of two new entrants will be of Latino decent by 2025.
At the Gala two Medallions of Excellence were awarded. Four-time Grammy winner Vikki Carr received one of them for her fourdecade-long dedication to the educational achievements of Latino youth through the Vikki Carr Scholarship Foundation, which she founded in 1971.
Engineer and astronaut José Hernández was awarded the other medallion for inspiring Latino youth to pursue their dreams in the fields of science and engineering. He founded the Reaching for the Stars Foundation which provides scholarships to students pursuing careers in those critical fields.
CHCI also celebrated the 30th anniversary of its public policy fellowship program which this year placed 24 young Latinos to work in congressional offices or with federal agencies in Washington, D.C., for a year in preparation to pursue public service careers of benefit to Latino communities.
One of this year’s fellows, Jorge Aguilar of Laredo, Texas, summed up his experience working and engaging with nationally renowned professionals, scholars and political veterans who are committed to the development of future generations of Latino leaders as “just phenomenal.”
Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Hispanic Link News Service.