Cheers echoed outside City Hall on Sunday as dozens of Latinos raised the flag of the Dominican Republic to fly high beside the star-spangled banner.
The rippling red, white and blue flags represented both the American home and fatherland of thousands of Reading Dominicans.
The event, hosted by the Dominican-American Union and city leaders, marked the 169th anniversary of the island nation's independence from Haiti. It was the third time the Dominican flag was been raised at City Hall.
"This is another example of diversity in the city," Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer said as he participated in the raising of the flag. "What a wonderful time this is, that the people of Reading can see just what our community is made of: It is made of a lot of different nationalities."
The flag raising also marked the opening of ceremonies for the Dominican-American Union's fourth annual Dominican Independence Day celebration.
The organization aims to not only bring awareness of Dominican culture to the city, which is home to more than 8,000 Dominicans. Cory Varona, president of the group, said it is inclusive.
"We are not just Dominicans or Dominican-Americans," Varona said. "Everyone is welcome."
From City Hall, the crowd made its way to the Sovereign Performing Arts Center for the organization's cultural event.
The event featured local Latino artists performing music, poetry and dance, including Dominican merengue star Ramon Orlando.
But more than an opportunity to celebrate the nation's distinct culture and pride, the event was the first time the organization awarded a group of Dominican high school seniors with scholarships to go toward their pursuit of higher education. "Bringing scholarships to students is my passion," Varona said. "That is why I joined the organization and it is great that we are able to help students in the city."
Reading High seniors Jese Camilo and Diana Cedano, both 17, and Carmen Gonzalez, 18, each received $500 scholarships. Shayla Tejada and Dharibeth Vazquez, both also 17 and Reading High seniors, and Stephanie Marie Rios, 18, a senior at I-Lead Charter School, received scholarships for $250 each.
The organization had been raising funds for the scholarships since its Christmas Ball last December. Each student had to complete an application process with essays, high grade point averages and letters of recommendation. The six were chosen from a pool of more than 30 students.
All of the students have received letters of acceptance from one or more colleges and universities and hope to study a range of subjects from crime scene investigation to international business.
Camilo, who wants to study physics and computer science and has been accepted at Lehigh University, Franklin & Marshall College and Ursinus College, said that he hopes he can come back and join the Dominican-American Union's efforts.
"It is a way for the Dominican community to be active and to have a voice," Camilo said. "It brings together different nationalities and it focuses on helping kids."
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