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This Hispanic Heritage Month has already been filled with a lot of exciting events celebrating in and around St. Louis. Building on that excitement, we’re continuing our United By CITY Spotlights into this month by featuring Hispanic/Latinx folks from our local community. We talked about the Hispanic community in St. Louis, the culture and importance of this month, and how soccer has been a part of their lives.
MEET MARITZA MARTINEZ
For CITY’s Assistant Director of Grounds Maritza Martinez, Hispanic Heritage Month is about representation and recognition. “Representation means so much. I want to be that example, to be one of the people I wish we would’ve seen as a kid.” Joining CITY, Maritza is the first woman at the Assistant Director level in MLS and the first Latina.
“I didn’t set out to be the first, I don’t think anyone sets out for that, you just end up in it,” said Maritza. “Growing up, I didn’t think that I would be the first of anything. But I hope to help expand dreams for people.” Asked about what it means to be the first Latina in her role in MLS, Maritza responded, “I don’t want it to be a commodity. Everyone just wants to feel normal, but being the first means it’s not normal yet.”
When talking about her Latina heritage, Maritza noted that she has been getting more in touch with it through the years. “It wasn’t really part of my upbringing, but it’s something I want to lean more into as an adult. It helps because the Hispanic community, really everyone, has been so warm and welcoming in St. Louis. People want to point you in the right direction.” Martinez moved here to join the Club a few short months ago after building her career in baseball.
“I was a baseball lover, still am. Soccer is new to me, the grass thankfully isn’t.” Maritza is not only part of our Grounds team, she’s part of a larger community of professionals across all sports. “I’ve worked with a lot of people in this field, but only worked under one woman. In the Sports Turf Profession, only 4% of groundskeepers are women.” This year that changed as the Little League World Series invited women in groundskeeping to come together to create an All-Female Grounds Crew, including Maritza. “It was an honor. I had the opportunity to be that role model for kids who don’t always have someone who looks like them to look up to. On top of that, I had the opportunity to work with women that dominate in my industry!” That sense of community, representation and belonging was echoed by everyone we talked to for Hispanic Heritage Month.
To learn more about Maritza, follow along with her grass Instagram, @Maritza\_Mows\_Grass.
MEET EDÙARDO PLATON
Edùardo Platon is another recent transplant to the City, moving here to serve as the President and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. Originally from Brazil, Edùardo spent the better part of a decade working in politics but now has a clear goal for his role in St. Louis. “The goal is to make life better, make the City more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive,” Edùardo said. While the goal is focused, the means to achieve that goal are much more broad.
“The Hispanic population here is around 150,000 people and it’s one of the groups actively growing. By making our region more diverse and providing access to needed resources, the power of the community will grow.” We asked what this growing group means to the St. Louis Metro area and what Platon has seen since moving here. “A strong sense of belonging is important, especially here, people move to St. Louis and want to make this their home. The Hispanic community here is a force for growth, for good and for both the traditional and new economy.”
As we talked about the community, we also covered what Hispanic Heritage Month is all about. “We have to embrace our culture and ourselves. This month is all about our contributions and celebrating who we are.”
We all know that soccer is a major part of cultures around the world, including in most Spanish-speaking countries. When thinking about St. Louis and heading into the Inaugural Season, Edùardo had this to say about the importance of CITY. “This club is a true coming together of the region – public, private, everyone collaborating to make it a reality. The Chamber is so excited to join this effort.” And on a more personal note, Edùardo talked about the meaning across the Hispanic community. “For us, we grow up playing soccer. Now, with CITY, we have the infrastructure and the vision. Kids can grow up and play this sport at the highest level. That’s the joy of soccer in St. Louis.”
To see what Edùardo is working on at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, visit their website.
MEET DIEGO ABENTE
Diego is the President and CEO of Casa de Salud, an organization with a mission to provide access to high-quality medical and mental health services in the community, focusing on new immigrants and refugees who face barriers to accessing other sources of care. That mission is something that rings true in talking to Diego.
“Growing up, it was a big deal to be in the States. My family came to the U.S. as refugees and that helped define my purpose. I have a deep-rooted responsibility to give back.” Here in St. Louis, Diego works directly with the immigrants and refugees, many with stories similar to his own. “It’s an exciting time to be Hispanic in the States. There’s a real opportunity to help build our communities to be stronger and thrive. And I believe that in doing so immigrants will fall in love with their new home – just like I did.”
The importance of community and culture is something that Diego encounters regularly both professionally and personally. “I’m so proud to be a part of this small, but tight-knit community. Everyone is really supportive and we are always looking for ways to celebrate and to share our culture. St. Louis has a rich culture of its own and as Hispanics we are privileged to bring something unique to the region.” Part of that uniqueness is a lifetime love of soccer, as CITY joins the League in 2023, there’s even more meaning for those who have emigrated from nations where soccer is the top sport. “With professional soccer, so many people will have another piece of home with them here, their new home.” Diego continued, “Soccer is a family affair. We watch, play, enjoy and celebrate it with our family. It’s beautiful.”
To learn more about Diego and his work, visit the Casa de Salud website.
MEET GABRIELA RAMÍREZ-ARELLANO
Gabriela serves as the Director of Entrepreneurship at CORTEX and is a cofounder of STLJuntos, a nonprofit focused on providing resources and information to the Hispanic community in St. Louis. To start, Gabriela introduced herself, “I’m a proud Mexicana from an immigrant family and my passion is to help St. Louis.” At a young age, Gabriela’s family emigrated from Mexico to California and then to here to Wentzville for her father’s career. “Finding a place that I belong and could make a difference has always been important. When I grew up, St. Louis was very different. In the 80s, I only heard English spoken here, now one can hear Spanish and other languages spoken with pride.”
As our area has continued to change, that effort was something Gabriela wanted to be a part of for the community. So much so, she moved back to the area. “I see that there’s so much potential for Latinos in St. Louis.” In her role at CORTEX, she focuses on entrepreneurs and business development. “I look at small businesses as workforce development. Helping them grow, succeed and scale.” When asked about what th at looks like in the Latino community, Gabriela’s answer was clear. “We have one of the largest communities of college-educated Latinos. So, it’s a mix of white collar and blue collar in St. Louis. The immigrant population represents an opportunity because we’re already bringing spending and buying power. We already have a seat at the table.”
In terms of soccer, Gabriela shares the sentiment that it is the culture. “We grew up playing soccer, my dad was a coach. Having our own team in St. Louis is like having our own family here. It’s ours. It’s here in the City. It will connect us from St. Charles to East St. Louis. This will help us all carry on the culture of St. Louis Latinos.”
Gabriela continued adding her own experience and view of culture, “I’m a proud Mexican immigrant. There aren’t enough of us. I want everyone to be proud of who we are. It’s more than food, it’s an entire culture to celebrate.”
To discover more of what Gabriela is working on, visit STLJuntos.com.
MEET ELISA BENDER
Elisa Bender is the founder of the Latinx Arts Network and an organizer at Hispanic Festival, Inc., cofounded by her mother. Elisa was born and raised in St. Louis in the 80s & 90s and has seen the Hispanic community evolve over the years. “The Hispanic community has really grown from the early 2000s. When I was growing up, I remember being the only Hispanic person in school. But my mom was always super involved. My parents knew everybody because they always sought out other Hispanics in the community.”
Looking at St. Louis, she notes that while we don’t quite have a La Villita district like Chicago, Cherokee Street and the community is growing together, even with the Hispanic population being spread across the region.
“The difference between 2019 and 2022 for the Hispanic Festival was huge. A mixture of turning to a post-COVID world and the population growing means that this community is thirsty for connection.” Elisa explained, “People are constantly asking ‘How do I connect?’ Or, ‘Where do I go?’ Everyone in this community is just so passionate.” That passion is something Elisa carries through all parts of her life.
“I’m super proud of being Hispanic. My husband and I raise our kids to embrace the culture and be part of it.” When asked to expand on what her Hispanic culture really means to her personally, Elisa responded with a smile and that same passion, “It’s a part of me. It’s who I am. It’s a part of my soul, so I celebrate it, showcase it and live it all the time. It’s me.”
As we continued talking about Hispanic Heritage Month and celebrating culture, Elisa continued to connect the dots. “The Hispanic community is so excited about having CITY here. I remember going to Steamer games, soccer has always been around us and our community. People may like to think that soccer and art are separate, but in our community, it’s engrained in us. It’s all one, it’s all culture.”
Through her work with the Latinx Arts Network and Hispanic Festival, Inc., Elisa works to constantly celebrate that culture. As she summarized the mission, she echoed the passion in a call to the Hispanic community in St. Louis. “This is for you,” she continued, “Our culture, who we are, it’s all for you.”
To learn more about Elisa and her work with the Latinx Arts Network, visit latinxstl.com.