Festival also draws attention to ESOL/ABE classes at St. Andrews Center
Pupusas, empanadas, tamales, live music, folk dancing, a soccer tournament: this Saturday, May 2, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., a long-awaited dream will come true. Neighbors will join in a block-party style Latin Festival enlivening the Highland Park Commons all day with the flavors and sounds of Latin American culture.
Gladys Pineda-Loher’s vision has caught fire and spread among the dedicated staff and students of weekly English language (ESOL) and Adult Basic Education (ABE) courses in the St. Andrews Center near the corner of Union and Willow. It is the first time the proceeds from a neighborhood event will directly benefit the St. Andrews campus of the Chattanooga State Adult Education program.
For the last 16 years, adult education courses have been offered at St. Andrews as a free service to Chattanooga’s immigrant population; however, many Chattanoogans remain unaware that St. Andrews is a site for Chatt State’s Adult Ed. The building’s proximity to neighborhoods like Highland Park, where many of the Guatemalan and other Latino language students live and work makes it a more workable facility for the ESOL courses than the alternative commute to the East Campus.
Recently, I began teaching an ESOL course two evenings per week at St. Andrews, and I know most of my students have children and full-time jobs, making the classes a challenge on multiple levels. If they had to drive out to the Bonny Oaks area for classroom space, it would certainly limit many students’ ability to participate. They are a highly committed group, and have taught me just as much about their experiences and culture as I have taught them in English language coursework. In preparation for the Latin Festival, we’ve been discussing the plans in class.
At the ground level, Pineda-Loher has been pushing for a Latin cultural celebration in Chattanooga ever since she relocated from Knoxville in 2009, after successfully establishing a Latin Festival tradition there. As a first step toward raising awareness and partnerships for diversity among the business community, she launched the International Business Council for the Chamber of Commerce.
Her passion is to assist the immigrant population of Chattanooga in integrating fully with our city’s cultural life, as well as demonstrating to long-time residents the richness of diversity our Latino neighbors bring. At Chattanooga State, she’s helped to grow the Cultural Ambassadors and International Achievers program, a locus for much of the energy behind the upcoming Latin Festival.
Pineda-Loher told me her driving motive for the festival was the simple question: “What’s being done to connect everybody?” She recognized that nothing large and cohesive was really happening. The Global Culture Fest that took place last fall was a start, but the larger goal has always been to host grassroots events in the very neighborhoods they benefit.
As Pineda-Loher puts it, “It was important for the Latin Festival to have a meaningful mission behind it. This is not just about a party. We’re helping to create pathways for education and integration. It’s about educating the community at large about diversity.” She is grateful for a host of supportive foundations making the festival possible, but especially the Benwood Foundation, which caught the vision for Latin Fest early on, and has been the festival’s most vigorous backer.
The energy behind the festival is contagious. For her part, Chattanooga State Adult Education Director Suzanne Elston is thrilled. The spotlight Latin Fest will shine on the dedicated teachers in the St. Andrews ESOL and ABE programs already feels like a boost. She explained further, “Over the years we’ve been working to develop a long-term way of assisting funding for adult education. We have an expanding program with increasing need, and we hope this will be the first annual and something we’ll continue for years to come.”
From my own limited experience teaching alongside dedicated ESOL instructors, I agree that it is heartening to have a celebration where our students’ cultures will take center stage. It’s amazing to me how eager these busy students are to learn all they can about the American language and culture. They are constantly fascinated and curious when I share about the parks, music, history, and customs I love and sometimes take for granted. The real magic of a healthy city shines through when that curiosity flows in both directions, and we take the time to learn from one another.
The Latin Festival features ongoing music, dance, cuisine, and kid-friendly events throughout the Saturday. The full event schedule and list of sponsors can be found on the Latin Fest Facebook page, facebook.com/events/194999177340284/