Phillips Avenue Elementary School concluded Hispanic Heritage Month with a blast on Thursday by celebrating with a day full of activities, where students, staff and parents shared and learned about Spanish-speaking countries and their different cultures, traditions, food and music, as well as important Latino historical figures and their contributions to the United States. 

The day started with a special kickoff assembly, where principal Debra Rodgers and several members of the school’s Hispanic Heritage Month committee — a 15-member volunteer group consisting of staff and PTO members — talked to students about the richness and diversity of America and how that extends to the Riverhead community. 

About 70% of the school’s 575-student population is Latino, Rodgers said, but emphasized that not all of them were Spanish-speaking. 

Principal Debra Rodgers speaks to the crowd. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

“What I’m most proud about here at Philips Avenue is that we celebrate, acknowledge and honor the cultures, the languages of all the students that attend here. Through this diversity, we feel that it enriches our students overall education in learning about others that are different than us and accepting those differences and honoring those differences,” Rodgers said.

Students then spent the day “visiting” 35 different Spanish-speaking “countries.” Each project — one per classroom — was a two-week long effort and the culmination of a deep-dive into a specific Spanish-speaking country and region where some students created artwork, while others colored or wrote about something specific related to each country, second-grade bilingual teacher and committee leader Daniel Estrada said. 

From a Mexican market complete with frijoles and jalapeños and several Día de los Muertos sugar skulls to the complicated geography of Chile and the colorful folk dresses of Guatemalan women, children wrote about each “visit” and what they learned in a special “passport.” The children also stopped at several murals of notable Latinos, where mini-biographies and photographs of figures such as professional baseball legend Roberto Clemente, labor leader Cesar Chavez or U.S Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor were displayed.

“Riverhead is an area with such a rich diversity, that no matter where you’re from, you can see that Hispanic culture is all over,” Estrada said. “This provides opportunities to teach about the richness of Hispanic culture and for people to learn about the culture and take it and move on and move forward with it.”

Rodgers said that the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration was a “labor of love” and commended the committee for working hard on putting together the different projects and events. 

“We hope each year it continues to grow and grow!” Rodgers said and added that similar events are also planned for Black History Month every year. 

The day ended with a big potluck dinner celebration — sponsored by the PTO and staffed with about 40 volunteers — where the community enjoyed cassava, rice, stewed chicken, empanadas, Andean corn, tortillas, pupusas, flan, fruit juices and many more delicious Latino dishes. About 230 people attended the event.

Becky Collins, the school’s PTO co-president and treasurer, as well as mother of a third-grader, said that events like this one provided an opportunity for the community to come together, something she said the children can only benefit from.

“Phillips Avenue really, truly is like a big family. I just can’t say enough about how awesome it is,” Collins said. “I’m dreading my daughter leaving after fourth grade. Everybody here is just amazing, and seeing how excited my daughter gets with these events and how kids talk about bringing their parents and families to the school, it just really makes it all worth it.”

Established in 1989, National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed each year from September 15 to October 15.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Maria Piedrabuena

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria