A hushed and respectful silence fell over the space of the gallery as the Director of La Casita Cultural Center, Tere Paniagua, gave the opening remarks for Balcón Criollo, La Casita’s signature exhibition each fall. This year, the exhibit is a tribute to the Hispanic men and women who dedicated their lives to serve in the United States Armed Forces. More importantly, the exhibit is a reminder that many of these brave men and women live right here in our own Syracuse neighborhoods. Members from the local Hispanic communities, along with Hispanic students, faculty and alumni of Syracuse University, proudly shared their cherished memories, real-life testimonies that breathe life into the Balcón Criollo. This gallery-wide collective of meaningful items is rich in sentimental value as it embodies the memories and the proud history that lives on in the heart of our veteran communities. For many of these families, those small items are all that is left of a loved one who dedicated to his or her life to the service of our country.
The solemn ceremony began with the Color Guard, presenting first the United States and the POW MIA colors, followed by the colors of Puerto Rico. Over 100 guests, many of them Syracuse University students affiliated with La Casita, accompanied by a significant group of residents of the Westside and other Syracuse neighborhoods, gathered to honor the veterans. It seemed that for a brief moment, each and every person in the room shared the pain, the sacrifice and the bravery of these proud patriots in our midst and in our long history of service to this country.
Several guests at the ceremony gave touching remarks honoring veterans. Among them Father Jim Matthews of St. Lucy’s Church; Ed Cuello, Chair of the Onondaga County Hispanic Heritage Month Planning Committee; Boris Gresely and Daniela López, President and Vice President of the Syracuse University Student Association, and Juanita Pérez Williams from the New York Labor Department, who shared the sentiments of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo for our community. But the most inspirational speaker of the evening was Korean War veteran and honored Borinqueneer from the legendary all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment, Eugenio Quevedo. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he moved to New York in 1946 when he was 20 years old. In 1950 he was drafted and served in Korea until 1956.
The 65th Infantry Regiment has been the only segregated all-Hispanic unit in the history of the U.S. Army. Like Quevedo, more than 20,000 Puerto Ricans served in that unit. The Balcón Criollo exhibit includes dozens of historic photos of the Borinqueneers. As part of this ongoing program at La Casita, an award winning documentary film titled The Borinqueneers was also screened, and the presentation was followed by an open dialogue with Eugenio Quevedo and with the Puerto Rican filmmaker who researched the piece for over a decade, produced and direct it, Noemi Figueroa Soullet.
There was a widespread sense of awe, gratitude and community in the air. Everyone remained in silence to honor the struggles with prejudice, war and destruction that this man had seen. The most touching part of the event, however, was after the formal ceremony concluded and members of the community walked through the exhibition space to honor the faces and the tales of bravery decorating every wall of La Casita. While some of stories will never be known, there were veterans, like Quevedo, who proudly share their stories with all who would listen. The Balcón Criollo invites the community to honor its veterans and to continue sharing their stories through the month of November. La Casita’s cultural heritage archive, preserved in its library, is dedicated to documenting these narratives in digital form, testimonies that talk about the life and the history of our Hispanic communities in Syracuse and throughout Central NY.
Tara Elizabeth Schoenborn is a Syracuse University student in her senior year, majoring in Public Relations and Communications and volunteering in various programs at La Casita Cultural Center, a program of the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University.