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St. Paul Pioneer Press

St. Paul: Festival Honors Hispanic Leaders


September 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003
St. Paul Pioneer Press. All rights reserved.

Irene Gomez-Bethke has been the state's human rights commissioner, interim director for the Chicano Latino Affairs Council and executive director of Instituto de Arte y Cultura.

But she is most proud of her family, which includes six children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"You can always get another job, but you can't get another family," she said.

Gomez-Bethke is one of five Minnesotans who today will receive the first Minnesota Hispanic Heritage Awards for lifetime contributions at the first La Familia Latino Family Festival and Expo at Touchstone Energy Place at RiverCentre.

The recipients also include community activists Tomasa Castillo, Joe Medina, Genevieve Morales and Cayita Vega.

The winners are people admired in the community for their work in the advancement of Hispanic people, said Rick Aguilar, president of Aguilar Productions and organizer of the expo. "They are humble people who I don't think have gotten the recognition they deserve."


Gomez-Bethke, whose parents are from Mexico, was born and raised in Minnesota. Her resume includes a long list of leadership positions in the Latino community, as well as a place in the Who's Who Among Hispanic Americans.

"I've worked a lot for social justice and peace," Gomez-Bethke said. "I guess really that has been my life work."

As a young girl, Gomez-Bethke encountered discrimination because of her Hispanic heritage but learned from her mother to pray for the people who discriminated against her. Gomez-Bethke said she has used that method throughout her life and has never been ashamed of who she is.

"I was proud of my heritage and very pleased to share it with everybody," she said.


Joe Medina, 89, was surprised when he heard he was receiving the award. "I think if I have to give a speech I will be speechless," he said.

Medina was born in Mexico but came to the United States at age 5 and to Minnesota at 7.

"We came here the fall of 1926, when they had just finished the Robert Street Bridge," he said. Medina went on to serve in World War II, own a bar and drive a truck for a printing company. He helped found the Mexican Americans Veterans Post No. 5.

But many in the Latino community know Medina for his musical talents. Talented at both the saxophone and clarinet, Medina has played in several bands, including two of his own. He also has served as a mentor to many area Latino musicians.


Genevieve Morales, 66, came to Minnesota as a migrant farm worker in 1951. She became aware of the issues facing migrant workers while raising her children in Blooming Prairie and went on the work with the Minnesota Migrant Council. While there, she helped to create a food shelf for migrant workers in southern Minnesota.

"My main concern since I started working has been helping people," Morales said. "I could see that it wasn't fair for this group." She currently works as a migrant labor representative for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.


Tomasa Castillo, 85, helped to establish the West Side Health Clinic in 1971. The clinic provided health care for many in the Latino community who were intimidated by large hospitals or could not speak English. Castillo also worked as a community organizer for the College of St. Catherine and has volunteered on many community boards.


Cayita Vega, 83, was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. After coming to Minnesota in the 1970s, she has helped many residents in the Latino community reach their goals through constant encouragement. Vega is even referred to in the community as "Mami."

Castillo and Vega could not be reached for comment.

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