Union Township celebrates Hispanic heritage

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UNION — Union Township’s sixth annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration drew a large crowd of residents to enjoy zesty Hispanic foods, festive music and games with friends and family at Biertuempful Park on Winslow Avenue on Friday, Sept. 17. Live music was provided by Armando Son Jimenez y Orquesta, Son Milanes, a mariachi band, flamenco and others. The event also featured food trucks and a beer garden.

“We’re here to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, and we have bands from different Spanish-speaking countries. We have food, we have games for the kids, we have a beer tent and we just have an amazing atmosphere to celebrate the heritage, the culture — everything that is Hispanic,” assistant township administrator William Reyes said on Friday, Sept. 17. “Union is the second-most-diverse municipality in the county and the 10th in the state. A huge portion of that is Latinos and Hispanics, and we’re celebrating everything that Latinos and Hispanics have done in Union, Union County, in New Jersey and in all of the United States. It’s just a time to celebrate everything that’s Hispanic.

“The township came together to do this. Our main sponsor is Colliers Engineering & Design. BCB Bank and Northfield Bank are also event sponsors,” he continued. “We have a plethora of food trucks and bands that run the gamut from Colombian salsa, Argentinian flamenco, Latin jazz, Mexican mariachis, so we try to cover a little bit of everything. Right now, within the first hour, we’re probably at about 200 and we’re expecting probably another 100 people or so by the end of the night. This event is unbelievable. We love this event, and this is one of our more successful events during the year, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger every year. It’s getting so big, we had to move locations for the first time. We’re very happy to have this every year and celebrate the culture, the history and everything that’s great about Latin America, Spanish-speaking countries, and Latinos and Hispanics in Union.”

Union Township Committeeman Manuel Figueiredo said he thought they had outdone themselves with the sixth annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration.

“We’ve brought this to a larger venue. We used to have this in front of Town Hall and we’ve now expanded. Son Milanes band is performing right now and they’re a great band. The food is phenomenal. We’re here until 9:30 p.m. and there’s various acts who will be performing,” said Figueiredo on Friday, Sept. 17.

“A lot of these people are eating and dancing to the sound of the music and it’s a great way to introduce those who are not familiar with some of the Hispanic culture and their food, heritage and music, which is the basis of all of a heritage of any ethnicity. It’s a great time to celebrate. We expect this event to really fill up, as there are more acts coming,” he continued. “This event is just phenomenal. I’m married to a Hispanic, so it’s a great way to share some of what I am exposed to for the past 33 years to some of our residents who are not familiar with it.”

Also there to enjoy the festivities was Deputy Mayor Joseph Florio, who was quick to point out how good it was to have something like this in the community once again.

“It’s a great night. There’s beautiful music, people are dancing and it’s a lot of people here,” Florio said on Friday, Sept. 17. “It’s really for the Hispanic people to celebrate their heritage. It’s great food, great people and it’s just a great night. We’re glad to be here in the great township of Union to sponsor one of these events again.”

During the event, Union Township Mayor Michele Delisfort and Township Committee members came together to honor Lizeth Morales, the owner of the restaurant El Gordo Peruvian Eatery in Union, with the Hispanic of the Year Award. Morales overcame unimaginable fear and struggle in the face of adversity as an undocumented immigrant and was even detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because of a traffic stop that led to the discovery of her immigration status. This whole ordeal led Morales to start her own business, El Gordo, which is on its third location in Union, at 2179 Morris Ave.

Morales explained how it felt to be honored in this capacity by the town.

“This award was presented to me by the Union Township Committee and the mayor, which is such a humbling award and such an honor to be able to be given such a beautiful award,” Morales said on Friday, Sept. 17. “I feel proud. A lot of times in our careers, we’re always wondering if we’re doing the right thing and if we’re doing a good job. In moments like this, where you feel seen and someone is actually valuing the contributions that you’re making, it feels good, and it makes me have more motivation to keep working hard and to keep building my family’s legacy.”

After the presentation of the award, many were able to take part in a salsa lesson, taught by professional dancer and Broadway performer Roman Cruz, who is originally from Newark and attended Arts High School. Cruz eventually graduated from the Juilliard School in New York. From there, Cruz developed his talents further, to make himself a triple threat of a performer. Cruz’s work includes being the dance captain of the Broadway musical “West Side Story.”

“I’m teaching a salsa class for this event,” Cruz said on Friday, Sept. 17. “I was teaching a salsa basic class for everyone who volunteered and came to the event. It’s such a beautiful event that happens every year, where everyone comes together and enjoys one another, especially in such unprecedented times that we find ourselves in. Teaching people how to dance feels great. It feels like I’m sharing a part of me, and it’s a bridge to people’s hearts. A lot of people can really resonate with music, and they can relate to it. It’s just another asset that goes alongside the music and, if I can bring a piece of me to them and put a smile on their face, then why not? It’s gratifying and fulfilling in and of itself.”

After completing a salsa lesson with Cruz, Delisfort was able to explain the relevance of Hispanic culture within the community today and how great it felt to honor Morales as an entrepreneur.

“I think this event is wonderful. I love the Hispanic community. My grandfather was half Cuban; my parents, my mom, everyone speaks Spanish fluently, and my nieces and nephews are half Puerto Rican, so I am extremely excited to be celebrating this event today,” Delisfort said on Friday, Sept. 17. “At this point, at least 200 people are here. Again, these are our residents, business owners celebrating diversity and encouraging people to really better understand the Hispanic and Latin American culture.

“Lizeth is a rockstar,” she continued. “Her story is so inspirational to so many people and to young girls, to women who want to be entrepreneurs. I think she’s phenomenal and has so much to offer. It’s her third business. She started in Passaic and here she is, all the way in Union Township almost 10 years later. She’s done a phenomenal amount of work, and the fact that she’s on No. 3 is an inspiration to all involved.”

Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman