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Meet The Latinos Who Are Preserving Our Heritage

Meet a group of women and men who are working to preserve the stories of generations of Latino immigration and influence in the U.S.
From left: Tony Hernandez, Marta Moreno Vega, Lionel Sosa, Ramona Hernandez, Joe Cardona.
From left: Tony Hernandez, Marta Moreno Vega, Lionel Sosa, Ramona Hernandez, Joe Cardona.Pablo Garcia, Kwessi Abbensetts, Kathy Sosa, Javier Pichardo, Joe Cardona

What better way to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month than to highlight the work of several Latinos dedicated to preserving key aspects of our nation's heritage, history and culture? Here's a look at their fascinating work.

Tony Hernandez

“Everyone has a story,” explained Tony Hernandez, who has interviewed celebrities, CEOs, teachers, and farmworkers, all with one thing in common - they have immigrated from different places around the world to the U.S. His Immigrant Archive Project, which he started in 2008, has collected over 1,000 interviews which have been edited into 60-second capsules and subsequently aired on television and radio.

The successful entrepreneur and president and CEO of Latino Broadcasting Company was born in Cuba and raised in Union City, New Jersey, home to many Cuban immigrants and increasingly Hispanics from other countries. As a young child, he constantly heard stories about newly arrived families and their overwhelming efforts to succeed in this country. Despite the hardships, Hernandez said he and most of the young people he grew up with went to college and are professionals today.

As he saw the immigration debate take a more negative turn a few years ago, Hernandez decided it was time to record stories to show how similar the nation's newest members are from the generations who made the similar journey.

“This is no different from immigrants that came 50 years ago or 200 years ago. The motivation is identical,” Hernandez said.

Marta Moreno Vega

“I felt our experiences were invisible because generally when you see imagery of Latinos, they don’t look of African descent. They are generally light skinned,” said Marta Moreno Vega, president and founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, the nation's most prominent Afro-Caribbean cultural center.

A scholar, author and documentary filmmaker, Vega was also a founding member of El Museo Del Barrio and served as its director for several years. Moreno Vega has made it her mission to ensure the preservation of the Caribbean region's cultural and religious history, especially its African community. One of her lifelong areas of study is Santería, a religion practiced today and which has its roots in the practices of Yoruba Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves.

Vega was born in New York's El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem, to Puerto Rican parents who had left the island. Though much of her scholarly work is historical, Vega has made the Caribbean Cultural Center a community resource and international gathering place on current Latino and African-American intellectual, music, and artistic endeavors.

“Our ultimate goal is to eliminate racism and [the] misinterpretation of values and contributions of all,” said Vega, whose plans for the center include more technology training and certificate-granting education for the younger generation.

Lionel Sosa

"It was a story my ancestors had experienced and a story that had never been told in textbooks," said Texan Lionel Sosa, about what led to the creation of his 20-part Emmy and Cannes award-winning public television series The Children Of the Revolución and its companion book. "This part of history was completely absent,” Sosa explained.

Sosa had made it big in the world of advertising as the founder of the country's largest Hispanic advertising agency. He has also been involved in seven presidential campaigns as a Republican consultant. But he felt compelled to tell the story of the more than 1 million people who left Mexico after the revolution of 1910 and exiled themselves to the U.S. Despite difficult conditions, they built homes, created businesses and essentially changed the American landscape.

In the series, descendants of the original immigrants, many of them prominent citizens of San Antonio tell their families' history. Sosa’s grandparents were among those immigrants.

“Mexico is so close to us. No matter how long we stay here, we identify as Americans first, but we also have a place for our mother country. That is very visible in San Antonio,” said Sosa, who was named in Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Hispanics.

Ramona Hernandez

“I don’t understand how more people are not interested in reading these documents,” said sociologist and scholar Ramona Hernandez of the more than 110,000 pages of manuscripts from 16th century La Española or Hispaniola - known today as the Dominican Republic and its neighbor Haiti.

Thanks to her leadership at the Dominican Studies Institute, the City University of New York (CUNY) holds possibly the only collection of Dominican colonial documents in the U.S.

Cardona found that although over 100 years of history about the New World was in those documents, few people could read them. She led a project that produced an interactive online program to teach the deciphering and reading of the handwriting styles found in these old manuscripts. The Spanish Paleography Digital Teaching and Learning Tool is the only such program in the world.

Born and raised in Santo Domingo and San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic, Hernandez is also focused on more recent history.

“We’re also recuperating the history of Dominican people in the U.S. by preserving and assessing the documents they have established in their daily lives. That’s extremely important to me,” Hernandez said.

Joe Cardona

“I wanted to make films that matter,” said Joe Cardona about his award-winning films, explaining that he was profoundly moved in college after watching the documentary film Shoah about the Jewish Holocaust. “It stimulated a desire in me to tell Latino stories - to tell stories that I know had not been told,” Cardona said.

HIs work includes Celia the Queen, an internationally acclaimed film about the life of the late Cuban singer and global musical icon Celia Cruz, as well as The Flight of Pedro Pan, on the history of the Cuban children who were sent to the U.S. without their parents after Castro came to power. Cardona also made a documentary about one of Cuba's and Latin America's most famous 19th century intellectuals and independence advocates, Jose Martí.

Cardona was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Cuban parents and raised in Miami. “I grew up in Miami which is like the 7th province of Cuba. I’m a proud Cuban-American,” he said.

Yet his work does not focus exclusively on Cuba. In 2011, Cardona won an Emmy award for a documentary on Haiti, Nou Bouke ("We're Tired") after the 2010 earthquake. The film, co-produced with The Miami Herald, was selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Cardona also co-produced the PBS music series Latin Music USA and is an editorial contributor at the MIami Herald.