A line of tables at Greenwood Park Church of Christ on Thursday evening was crowded with food ranging from meatballs and cheese trays to rice dishes and tamales.
After a blessing spoken in Spanish, participants in the Winter Fiesta, organized by a number of Latino groups in Bowling Green, lined up and filled their plates. The room soon filled with the buzz of conversation.
The potluck event was a partnership between the Amigos Resource Network, the Hispanic Organization for the Promotion of Education, the Hilltopper Organization of Latin@Students and the La Nuestra Spanish language radio program.
The event served as the monthly meeting of the Amigos Resource Network, though this is one of the first community-building events the group has done, said Leyda Becker, international communities liaison for the city of Bowling Green.
The city facilitates the Amigos Resource Network as a way to connect the Latino community in Bowling Green. Becker said it was good to partner with some of the other Latino community organizations for the fiesta.
There's a need for more events to gather members of the Latino community in Bowling Green together, said Addilene Hernandez, 24, of Bowling Green. Hernandez is a junior at Western Kentucky University and a co-president of HOPE.
"I think that's definitely something that's a big need in our community," she said.
Thursday's event showed Hernandez new ways to reach out to the community.
She hopes the collaboration between different Latino groups in the area will continue, Hernandez said.
"I hope that they see that we all have the same goal in mind," she said.
The fiesta was also an opportunity to eat some great food and get the message of HOPE out to people, said Julia Rivas, 26, of Bowling Green. Rivas is a senior at WKU and also co-president of HOPE.
It's important for people to know there are organizations helping the Latino community, she said. For example, HOPE awards scholarships for Latino students at WKU.
The efforts of HOPE are important because the mentality of some in the Latino community needs to be changed so people within it know they can become educated professionals rather than working menial jobs, Rivas said. It can be a challenge for some members of the community to complete a college degree both because of finances and because their families may not have a history of college education.
When she graduates from WKU in May, Rivas will become the first person in her family to graduate from college and she's excited by the prospect.
"Graduating from college, that's my dream come true," she said.
The percentage of Latino students that actually graduate from WKU is very low, said Valerie Carlin, 31, of Bowling Green, president of HOLAS and a senior at WKU. One of the goals of the organization is to create a strong community to support Latino students so they are more likely to graduate.
Many Latino students at WKU are from other areas of the country or are international students lacking strong ties to the community, she said.
"So we're hoping that they get to meet and reach out to the community and other Latino members in the community," Carlin said.
Members of the group were also hoping to meet potential financial sponsors of the group, she said.
"I thought it's good to get to know people here that are really, like, involved in all the Latino organizations," said Jessica Henao, 20, a freshman at WKU originally from Medellin, Colombia, and treasurer for WKU HOLAS.
The group doesn't have many members currently, but is hoping to grow stronger, Henao said.
She moved to the United States about a year ago, first living in Florida and then moving to Nashville about six months ago. She said it's nice for her to be around people who speak Spanish.
She brought two friends with her to the event -- one Brazilian and one American -- to share a little bit of her culture, along with some good food.
"I think the main thing is it's more friends," she said.
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