By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
Emporia is HOTT.
In this case, I’m not referring to the temperature. HOTT is an acronym for Hispanics Of Today and Tomorrow, an organization that is working to promote higher education opportunities for Hispanic students in the Emporia area.
Rebeca Herrera and Patricia Saenz-Reyes of Emporia are active in Hispanics Of Today and Tomorrow. Rebeca is of Spanish and Mexican descent and grew up in Atlanta.
“Moving from a large metropolitan city in the east to the great plains of the Midwest was a culture shock,” she said. “I have now been in Emporia for four years. This wonderful community has welcomed me with open arms.”
She is now membership director at the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce.
Saenz-Reyes is a self-described “border baby,” born in El Paso. Her mother is an American citizen and her father is Mexican. Patricia went to school in Juarez, Mexico until the 9th grade when she transferred to El Paso to continue her education.
Her career took her to west Texas where she was an insurance executive before coming to Emporia. Now she is the migrant community resource coordinator and student and family resource specialist with the Emporia school district.
“HOTT started in 1999 with just six members,” Saenz-Reyes said. “People saw there was a need for more support for Hispanic students to continue into higher education.”
Emporia, at the crossroads of Interstates 35 and 335, has long been a major location for significant employers. “Actually, it goes back to the 1930s when the Santa Fe railroad was needing workers,” Saenz-Reyes said. The 1960s saw large beef packing operations and other manufacturers come to Emporia. Job opportunities attracted a diverse workforce.
According to data from the Emporia school district, in 1992 Hispanics made up 11.3% of the student population. By 2022, that number was 47.5%.
HOTT members sought to enhance scholarship opportunities for Hispanic youth. They developed two big festivals to raise funds for scholarships. One is Cinco de Mayo in the spring, and the other is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in the fall.
Both events involve lots of food and fun. “All of the proceeds from our fried taco sales go to the scholarships,” Herrera said. “It’s super nice to see our community embracing our culture.”
Cinco de Mayo is, of course, held on the fifth of May. It commemorates Mexican history and culture.
Day of the Dead occurs in late October, but is not a Halloween event. “It is more of a spiritual day to celebrate those who have passed,” Saenz-Reyes said. “We bring out shrines, light candles, and prepare favorite foods of our departed loved ones.”
In Emporia, Day of the Dead is a day-long festival, featuring Latino artists, games, prizes and a downtown parade. Who emcees the parade? Rebeca Herrera and Patricia Saenz-Reyes. As many as 3,000 people attend this event.
Not only are these events unifying for Emporia, they also bring together diverse groups within the Hispanic community itself. “People may assume that all Hispanics are from Mexico, but we have people here from Central and South America, Cuba and Puerto Rico,” Saenz-Reyes said. “There are also international students at Emporia State (University).”
Together, these events have raised $100,000 for scholarships. What’s more, Emporia State University and Flint Hills Technical College will match them. That’s remarkable in a rural community like Emporia, population 24,139 people. Now, that’s rural.
One of the scholarship recipients was Omar Herrera, who used his scholarship to help earn a masters degree in architecture at K-State. Omar is now Rebeca’s husband. He serves as the facility planner project manager with university facilities at Emporia State University.
“I love the diversity of Latinos in Emporia and how much this small rural town has to offer,” Rebeca Herrera said. For more information, go to www.hottfiesta.com.
Emporia is HOTT – not the temperature, but the organization known as Hispanics Of Today and Tomorrow. We salute Rebeca Herrera and Patricia Saenz-Reyes for making a difference with their cross-cultural communication. I think this is HOTT stuff.
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