Paula Tejeda was born in Puerto Rico in 1946. She lived for eighteen years in Florida and moved to the Lowcountry in 2004. She joined the Círculo Hispanoamericano de Charleston and soon became its president. In this excerpt, she discusses the history and mission of the Círculo as well as their future plans. Paula works at the Charleston School of Law as Associate Law Librarian and Head of Technical Services.
Marina López: How would you describe the Círculo to someone who does not know its purpose and history?
Paula Tejeda: Well, the Círculo is a group of people, many of them long time residents of the area who have formed a group to hold activities that promote Hispanic culture.
Lately we are working hard to recruit support and sponsorships from area schools and colleges. It's a group of people who do not get involved in civic social issues from the perspective of political movements, we engage more in education and cultural work. That's the difference between us and other area Hispanic groups. And we have kept that perspective for thirty-five years.
ML: For thirty-five years. And could you tell me, can you describe what type of activities, the sorts of things promoted by the Círculo?
PT: Yeah, look, we work a lot lately, in the last three years, with Charleston County schools, and our colleague, Vice President, and past President Celina Anthony. They have programs for Hispanic parents, and have programs for parents in general. We are there helping with registration, serving as interpreters, serving as welcoming committee. When they have programs specifically for Hispanic parents, we have facilitated programs; we have made presentations on health, on the importance of reading, on education, and talked with the children, parents, and all. With institutions of higher learning we have joined efforts for the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and the celebration of some other Hispanic days. With the College of Charleston we have organized presentations for Cinco de Mayo, we work to bring guests or help in the organization of programs for the Hispanic Heritage Month. We've been doing this since 2006 with the Charleston School of Law where I work. We have organized and co-sponsored the activities of the International Day and Hispanic Heritage Month, which also bring speakers, cultural performances, dance groups or speakers to talk about Hispanic culture or history. And last year we worked with the Medical University of South Carolina and the Hispanic Alliance. We also helped them to organize programs for Hispanic Heritage Month and we collaborated with them by providing materials for one or two presentations.
ML: Okay, and this started thirty-five years ago?
PT: The Círculo began thirty-five years ago.
ML: What can you tell us about the history of the Círculo?
PT: The story of the Círculo, as I understand it, began rather with a group of professors from the College of Charleston and the Medical University, who wanted, just that, to keep in touch with cultural issues, educational issues. For several years they organized the activities, several years later they opened the membership to other members of the community.
ML: It was initially a closed group?
PT: Yeah, and after a while, other members of the community began to join. Thirty-five years ago maybe there were not that many Hispanics. The group was merely teachers, professors of the two universities who got together and focused their activities at the university. And later—remember that here was a Navy base. There was an air force base. I understand that many Puerto Ricans lived here or served in the military and then decided to remain here to retire. So that's where the flow began, but that maybe—who you could say a little more about it, Tito, he knows everybody related to that.
ML: And you told me it was an institution, apparently a group of friends, a group of colleagues, working for culture. To promote culture?
PT: Exactly. To promote and preserve, as it is said in the mission statement, "preserve and promote the Hispanic culture." And after collecting the story of Círculo for our last dinner that was held last month. After several years, members of the community began to join, and then they continued doing other activities.
ML: What is the process now? Suppose someone comes to Charleston or suddenly wants to join the Círculo now. How is the process for any member of the community to connect and participate?
PT: The person can simply contact us, any member of the Círculo, or any member of the board, and say, "I'm interested." Usually we invite them to one of the activities such as the end of the year celebration, in December. We invite them to come. We invite them to come to the annual dinner, or we send, if they shared with us their address or their email address, we send them a list of activities. We invite them to come to the activities. They get interested and fill out the membership form and join the group. We have individual membership for people who are single or who just want to join individually and a family membership that includes all family members who are living with them.
ML: One thing that I find intriguing about the Círculo is that there are non-Latino members who are interested in Latino culture.
PT: Yes, we definitely have, we have several people who are Anglos or from other countries. Their home or primary language is not Spanish, yet they are members or are friends, and attend our activities. It is true.
ML: And how did the program to support Hispanic students get started?
PT: That's a scholarship fund that has been well established for a long time. I cannot tell you exactly what year it began but it has been in place for many years. It is a scholarship fund established by the founders at the beginning. Because we want to stimulate the Hispanic student with an academic proficiency, reward him somehow. And of course, it requests that the student be bilingual, have the skills, and be able to write in Spanish, able to communicate openly and comfortably in Spanish. It is a recognition.
ML: And do you have a process for students to apply for this scholarship?
PT: We have a process, every year one of the academic institutions is chosen. Initially it was the College of Charleston and Medical University, and then it was opened to the rest. Every year an organization is selected according to an order. We communicate with the office of students, student services and financial aid at universities, and tell them, "We have this opportunity; there are five hundred dollars that can help to buy books or something else. Could you distribute this information among the Hispanic students?"
There is a very simple application form. The student must complete this application. You must send a letter in Spanish and specifically explain why he thinks he deserves the scholarship and how they have been involved—one of the requirements is to be involved in the community, what they have done in the community that benefitted especially the Hispanic community, to explain his community work. So on that basis, there is a scholarship committee that studies and selects the student based on his community service and his ability to communicate and all that. Then the scholarship is granted. Next year it will be another institution, and we will go through the same process.
ML: When you talked about your history as a professional, your career, you said you have many years working on projects and planning things. What are your plans and your projects for the Círculo?
PT: My plans and my projects for the Círculo? Definitely we want to continue getting involved with the community, especially the academic community. We would be very interested and we have spoken many times about this, to see how we can project to the general public. We want them to know about the full range of Hispanics here, and the good work and positive contributions we all make.
Because it is impressive to see how many people work at the Medical University, work at the College of Charleston, how many Hispanics work at Charleston Southern or Trident Tech, who are providing, they are doing something, and the many people in the community who are working, who simply—do so many things in this community, we want to project—reveal everything positive about the Hispanic community.