Buffalo’s Urban Jíbaro

An Interview with President, Casimiro D. Rodriguez Sr. of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, Inc.

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Casimiro D. Rodríguez, Sr.

“Our people, especially the elders, carry a wealth of memories, stories and history about our collective Hispanic heritage here in Buffalo and Western New York. We must find a way to capture and preserve this wisdom before it’s too late.” – President, Casimiro D. Rodríguez Sr.

As an active intern working for the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, Inc. in Buffalo, New York, I had the pleasure of being acquainted with president Casimiro D. Rodríguez Sr. Rodríguez is the proud Puerto Rican founder of the organization and continues to be a passionate contributor to not only the city’s Puerto Rican community but many other Latina/o communities throughout the Western New York region. Dedicating a lifetime of advocacy, he continues to make strides in Buffalo by unifying the Latina/o community through culture and more importantly making it his civic duty to educate the youth on their cultural identities and potential contributions in the future.

La Respuesta had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Rodríguez about his life, work, and continuous advocacy for Latina/os in Western New York. Here is what he had to say:

GJM: Where did you grow up? Were you raised on the island of Puerto Rico or in Western New York?

CDR: I was born and raised in Western New York. I was the twelfth child of a humble family of thirteen. I saw that hard work and sacrifice would be two of the three components I would need in the future. Being driven with commitment under the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), I achieved a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies at the University of Buffalo in 1977. In 2006, I retired from General Motors Corporation after thirty-three years of dutiful service. My last assignment was as production readiness – launch manager, where I assisted with new and major engine and transmission powertrain program launches in the United States, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Austria, China, Korea and Brazil. I have a lifelong commitment to advocacy, a passion about growth and positive change in our community [all] driven by social justice and for young people, especially those underserved populations.

GJM: What drove you to become a public advocate in the Latina/o community of Western New York? What was your primary focus in re-shaping the Latina/o community for the future of Buffalo?

CDR: As a natural born and raised in Western New York I have been able to see and experience first hand the success and failures of my community in areas of bilingual education for Latinos and English language learners in the Buffalo Public School System. I have personally lived through them, and if I can make a difference for our future generation, I want to be part of that support to make it better.

GJM: In regards to the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, what was your inspiration behind helping to create an institution based on social development and cultural heritage?

CDR: In 2007 I was asked by the Erie County Executive to serve on an advisory board that reviewed the arts, cultural and theatre groups that provided these services to the citizens of Western New York. All of them offered a unique service to the constituency in the areas of arts and culture, and to me our Latino community did not have any representation, or lacked influence in this area. I thought that it was important that an organization be created to share with the rest of the population its history, heritage, and culture.

GJM: During Hispanic Heritage Month, what kind of events does your organization promote in order to engage the Buffalo community?

CDR: We collaborate with the arts, cultural, and theatre groups of the area to promote our mission for community. By doing so we cater to their constituency and population, along with our own, to share the Hispanic rich cultural heritage with all our neighbors. In the past we have hosted events like our Hispanic Veterans Memorial 5K Run & Family Walk at the Canalside and  educational lectures at both the Downtown Central Library & Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. In fact, our biggest event occurred last year. We had Johnny Olivo Jr. of Herencia de Bomba y Plena visit Buffalo to play at the Klienhans Music Hall.

Johnny Olivo Jr. and Herencia de Bomba y Plena perform in Buffalo, New York.

Johnny Olivo Jr. and Herencia de Bomba y Plena perform in Buffalo, New York.

GJM: What is the Hispanic Heritage History Project? What is the primary goal behind the collection of photos from the Latina/o community?

CDR: We owe such a project to our community, Western New York, and most important, our children. The Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, in collaboration with the Buffalo and Erie County Library, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, and the Randforce Associates, is proud to head up the “Bring Us Your History Project: The Journey of Hispanics to Western New York”. This long-term project, which began in 2012, is capturing previously untold stories of the first wave of Hispanic immigrants to the area and collecting material culture to:

  • Historically document how the Hispanic population arrived to Western New York and maintained a strong, growing community over the last century. 
  • Compile stories that speak of their socioeconomic experiences: labor, family, culture, traditions, activism, language barriers, and community.
  • Provide first person experiences to help contextualize the impact of work contract programs, such as Operation Bootstrap, with Puerto Rico, and the Bracero Program, with México, within the local and national historical narrative.
  • Chronicle how Hispanic individuals, organizations, and political action groups have influenced changes to Western New York.
  • Present opportunities and tools for community members, educators, organizations and researchers to learn, write, and teach about the Hispanic community in Western New York.
  • Make accessible this important part of history by recording the interviews for archival purposes, transcribing for publication, and making them open to the public through the Buffalo and Erie County Public Central Library.
  • Utilize innovative techniques to clip audio interviews into short thematic story clips and index them in a digital database for more accessible community use.
  • Engage, train, and empower community members in various aspects of the project.
Photograph from “Bring Us Your History Project: The Journey of Hispanics to Western New York”.

Photograph from “Bring Us Your History Project: The Journey of Hispanics to Western New York”.

Furthermore, this project has been selected to be the pilot public history project by the Buffalo and Erie County Central Library and the Arts Services Initiative of Western New York as a model for other future ethnic groups [to do the same]. This initiative will help reinvent thelibrary as a location for digital social curation, where patrons can interact with and create historical documents. Securing additional in-kind and monetary resources will allow us to introduce this crucial part of Western New York history through the collection of oral histories, including that of multiple generations.

GJM: How were you involved in the Hispanic-American Veterans Memorial Monument Committee? Can you talk about the monument and what it stands for, for those who are veterans of the United States Armed Services?

CDR: I am not a veteran, but I had two brothers that were. I was asked to lead the efforts in fundraising for the monument in order to have it built. The memorial site is the aspiration of a few dedicated Western New York veterans known as the “WNY Hispanic American Veterans Memorial Committee.” It honors all Hispanic American Veterans past, present, and future. The site recognizes the five branches of the Armed Forces: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. It allows anyone wishing to participate an opportunity to perpetuate the memory of their loved ones who have given their life in order to bring about democracy and maintain peace within our world. I knew that this would be an important piece of history for our area, in honoring our veterans, so I accepted to join the committee.

Western New York Hispanic American Veterans Memorial Sculpture

Western New York Hispanic American Veterans Memorial Sculpture

GJM: As the organization moves forward what kinds of achievements would you like to see in the Latina/o community of Western New York?

CDR: I hope that through our efforts in meeting our vision and mission for community that the general population may appreciate how Hispanics in Western New York helped shape the area. Also, that our future generations, our children understand their history!

Here is a brief look into the history of Latina/o migration to Western New York:

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Gabriel José Maldonado

Poet, Gabriel José Maldonado (also known as Neo-Literato) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate student at Bank Street College of Education, where he majors in Museum Education. In his spare time, he loves writing poetry and taking photos throughout his travels. In the future, he intends to pursue a career in preserving Hispanic and Latina/o cultures, because being Puerto Rican has made him proud to spread our culture through the arts.