Inaugural Hispanic Heritage Month Assembly Celebrates Belonging

Over the years, Marist School has recognized Hispanic Heritage Month in a variety of ways in classes and clubs across campus, but, for the first time, Marist held an all-school assembly to spotlight the national opportunity to appreciate the rich history, culture, and contributions of Americans with ancestry from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Marist is intentional about uplifting the blessings of diversity on our campus, and this assembly was a way to do just that in honor of the 9.2% of Marist students who identify with this background. A 2023-2024 signature event of Marist’s Office of Inclusion & Diversity, the Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month Assembly was organized by Marist history teacher Mr. José Gregory and a team of student leaders. By all accounts, the event was a resounding success.
The highlight of the morning was a keynote address given by guest speaker Nick Valencia, a CNN correspondent who worked his way up from teleprompter operator to on-air reporter during his 17 years at the network. A professed advocate for making the world a better place through storytelling, Valencia shared his origins and professional journey, emphasizing the sense of belonging it took him many years to feel and embrace once he left the predominantly Mexican American neighborhood in California where he grew up. In an inspirational moment, he said to those in attendance, “You belong anywhere your feet are planted. I hope someone in the audience needs to hear that.”

Showing a presentation that included photos from his youth, his first broadcast clip, and his famed CNN report from El Chapo’s escape tunnel, Valencia told his story. Growing up as a third generation Mexican American, he spent his childhood being bullied and picked on in a violence-ridden part of Northeast Los Angeles rife with street gangs. He credits his mother and close-knit family with protecting him from what could have been a much different path to his life. 

His involvement with football, track, ice hockey, and the school newspaper in high school opened the door for him to attend the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism where he was a documentary filmmaker for the university’s national championship football team and a sportswriter for a variety of other collegiate teams. At one game, he daringly approached a Fox Sports News satellite truck, and, though he got kicked out, his bravado impressed one of the producers who gave him an internship that solidified his commitment to a career in journalism. 

A happenstance led to his employment at CNN. His cousin was seated next to a CNN producer on a plane and spent the entirety of the flight pitching Valencia’s merits. A short time later, a CNN recruiter got in touch, and, on a fateful Valentine’s Day, Valencia received an offer from CNN to be a video journalist, which he defined as a glorified title for teleprompter operator and floor director.

Through his ascent up the ranks at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, Valencia has made it a personal priority to try to add value in everything he does. He has an immense sense of gratitude for his journey, particularly to his father. “So much of what I do is to pay homage to him since he died when I was 17,” he said. “He recognized my potential as a journalist well before I did.” 

Valencia also is cognizant of his position as a role model. “Every time I am on TV, some brown-skinned, curly-haired, big-eared kid like me is saying ‘I can do that because he can do that’. That’s worth its price in gold for me.” This mindful awareness epitomizes the hashtag Valencia uses often in his @cnnvalencia Instagram posts — #sisepuede.

Beyond encouraging Marist students to embrace belonging, Valencia highlighted the importance of allyship to amplify the dignity and worth of people who may come from backgrounds different from their own. His words complemented those Mr. Gregory shared in his introductory remarks, “At this first-ever school-wide assembly, we can be unapologetically ourselves within the school community. We are enhanced by our cultural background, but not limited by it.”

Valencia is a very visible representation of the duality of living as Latino and American in this country. He is energized by the fact that, in Atlanta, he can be a pioneer, and he acknowledged to the audience his amazement that he was the inaugural speaker for Marist’s first-ever Hispanic Heritage Month school-wide assembly.

It was a privilege for the Marist community to hear from Valencia, and he has expressed his desire to stay connected with the students, whether they are Hispanic/Latino or not, and certainly those interested in journalism. Even his CNN boss, Erica Henry, came to Marist to listen to him speak. Henry is Vice President of News for CNN/U.S. and the proud mother of Marist student Sydney Sims ’24. Valencia’s other Marist connection is his neighbor, Marist science teacher Larry Rogers, who was instrumental in bringing him to campus. 

As Marist continues its work to build our students’ capacity for empathy, it is important that they hear stories such as Valencia’s. As he does, we are fostering a culture of inclusion on our campus one story and one experience at a time.

Before the keynote address, the 90-minute assembly opened with a prayer in Spanish led by Bella Zapata ’24. Mr. Gregory provided a brief lesson about the history and purpose of Hispanic Heritage Month and shared that some of his students were inspired to create the Latin American Studies Culture Club (LASCC) after the anti-Latino tragedy at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas in 2020. With a stated purpose to build bridges not walls within the Marist community, the LASCC, in collaboration with Marist’s Office of Inclusion & Diversity, has since presented a multitude of events and installations to help make Marist more inclusive, including a Belonging exhibit entitled “Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What We Bring to Marist,” which was a collaboration with the Fine Arts Department; Día de los Muertos altars with the assistance of Marist housekeeper and Fr. Schmuhl Award recipient Ms. Josefina Mora; and a school-wide Block Party put on jointly with the Modern & Classical Languages Department; among other events. 

The assembly also featured a performance by a dancer from Atlanta’s Alma Mexicana Danza Folklórica performing traditional Mexican dances from the state of Jalisco.

Marist will continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month through October 15. Additional recognition includes an exhibit of Hispanic/Latino items in the front office display case, morning prayers, and a bulletin board decorated with Chicano art in the social studies hall. Additionally, throughout the school, Marist teachers are displaying posters of famous Hispanic/Latino figures on their doors.

View photos from the Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month Assembly.

Marist School

3790 Ashford Dunwoody Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30319-1899
(770) 457-7201
An Independent Catholic School of the Marist Fathers and Brothers