Hispanic Alliance works to strengthen Hispanic Community

By Jenny Munro

September 15 to October 15 is recognized as Hispanic Heritage Month, an annual celebration of the history and culture of the US Hispanic community.  Hispanic Heritage Month began as a weeklong celebration when it was first introduced in 1968. The intent was to recognize the role the Hispanic community played throughout American History.

President George H.W. Bush was the first to declare September 15 to October 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month.  In doing so, he said, “Hispanic Americans have enriched our nation beyond measure with the quiet strength of closely knit families and proud communities.”

Greenville’s Hispanic Alliance has provided that same sense of quiet strength along with a strong feeling of family to its more than 10-year partnership with Legacy Early College Charter School located in Greenville’s West End. 

Alejandro Jaramillo, a 2021 Legacy graduate and now a Clemson University student says he, “felt that sense of family,” from the moment he began attending Legacy in the seventh grade. Legacy continues to be a Jaramillo family affair because Alejandro’s two younger sisters are also Legacy scholars. That family relationship works for Legacy’s scholars, supporting them despite challenges they face at home and in obtaining their education.

Jaramillo dreams of one day becoming an astronaut and working for NASA. He is off to a good start, attending Clemson on a full scholarship, and he is already classified as a sophomore because of the dual credit hours he received while attending Legacy.  

Legacy’s goal is to support all its scholars, encouraging them through a rigorous education to go on to become college graduates. Legacy strives to empower all its scholars to become productive, healthy, principled citizens in a changing society. The school does that through family support, mentorships, scholarships, and other partnerships throughout the community.

“The Alliance’s goal is to support the Hispanic community in Greenville and surrounding counties, with an eventual goal of spreading statewide. Its major goal is to connect agencies and individuals that support the Hispanic community to those who need help and resources,” said Debbra Alvarado, the Alliance’s operations and network manager. 

Legacy and the Alliance work together to meet those goals. Legacy’s student population was 6 percent Hispanic in 2010. It reached 35 percent in 2021. Greenville County’s Hispanic population in 2016 was 9 percent of the total population, or more than 44,000 people, and it’s still growing.

“Every year we have a lot of Hispanic students,” said Elena Leon, bilingual parent coordinator at Legacy’s elementary school. “Every year there are more.”  

“Education, health, financial stability, and legal aid comprise the four pillars of the Hispanic Alliance,” said Alvarado. Its partnership with Legacy supports its education pillar through providing mentors and other educational programs. The Alliance also helps Legacy parents with events such as healthy cooking classes, vaccination sites and workshops providing legal information in various areas.  

“We focus on providing a bridge between the growing Hispanic population and the resources available,” said Adela Mendoza, the Alliance’s executive director and a Legacy board member.

That close relationship between the two institutions and their support of students and their families attracted Julio C. Hernandez, assistant vice president for inclusive excellence and executive director for Hispanic Outreach at Clemson University as well as a volunteer at both Legacy and the Hispanic Alliance. He serves as a mentor through both organizations and has mentees in all grades throughout the state.

“It spoke to my heart because I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the help I got from people who looked like me and people who didn’t look like me,” he said. 

Hernandez can often be found around Legacy, and he and Jaramillo connected organically at the school when the scholar was in the 7th grade, occasionally running into each other. All Legacy seniors are assigned a mentor and that’s when the two began officially working together, they said.

The first person in his family to go to college, Hernandez said he has a passion to help others succeed because “I’m so appreciative of where I’m at now.” Jaramillo is also the first person in his family to attend college as well and perhaps explains why he and Hernandez developed such a close relationship.  

Hernandez believes helping others doesn’t have to be a big, time-consuming project.  “I pray to God every day to put one positive fingerprint on somebody’s life,” adding that sometimes it’s as easy as calling three people on my way home from work. But I’ve got to be intentional.” The connection could be a text to a mentee or a phone call or a sit-down conversation of 30 minutes.

Hernandez said Jaramillo jumped at any chance he could find to improve. He followed up on any suggestions made. He was involved with Tiger Alliance, a Clemson group that works with Hispanic and African American students. He volunteered with the Hispanic Alliance whenever he could help.

“For me, it’s not so much being scared that the struggle is coming; it’s knowing that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Jaramillo. “I never wanted to be somebody who backed down because they didn’t think they were going to make it. It’s always been just throw yourself in. If it doesn’t work, at least you know you tried.”

“The Alliance helps Legacy provide support to its Hispanic students and their families,” said Leon. “It’s beneficial to the parents and to the community,” she said.  

“The partnership unites a large network that Legacy parents can find in one place,” Mendoza said. “It really expedites us moving resources where they are needed.”

“The encouragement from Hernandez and the school is important to students,” said Alvarado, who moved to the United States from Puerto Rico when in high school. She said she and her parents had difficulties navigating the education system initially. That’s one reason the Alliance is pleased to partner with Legacy. The charter school provides its scholars a quality education while encouraging them to delve into higher education. In addition, it provides strong support for students’ families. In addition to her work with the Alliance, Alvarado is also a mentor with Legacy.  Her mentee, Julissa Lopez, is a 2018 graduate of Legacy and a student at Furman University. They still talk which allows Alvarado to continue to provide support and encouragement.

“Legacy is unique,” Mendoza said. “The Alliance wants to engage the community and Legacy does that. Legacy’s parents have a long-standing relationship with the school and that helps the Alliance. Legacy finds out what the parents need, and the Alliance tries to provide it.”

Mendoza added that “Legacy cares about the children not just as students but as a person.”

Although Alvarado has no children yet, she said that she would want any children she might have to go to Legacy if possible. Legacy “is a family to us, they have always been supportive.”