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'We're here, we celebrate,' some Latinos say on Independence Day
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From left, Veronica Salazar, 26, her friend Maria Ruiz, 35, and her daughter Janeili Santana, 4, relax Tuesday at Longwood Park in Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

The Rev. Samuel Samaniego and his wife, Rosa, met up with dozens of members of their church — Iglesia Bautista Cristo La Roca — bright and early at Laurel Park on Tuesday.

By 7 a.m., Samaniego said he and his congregation had staked out a corner where they had plenty of room to put up a volleyball net. He said the location was ideal because it was next to an open space overlooking Lake Lanier, where many of the church’s youths could also play soccer.

Joining Independence Day festivities is a tool Samaniego uses to bring the congregation together outside church walls to fellowship and invite others who are not members of the church.

“We started 10 years ago with just eight members,” Samaniego said. “We now have more than 200 members.”

Samaniego said that although many in his Latino congregation were not born in the United States, he encourages them to be part of the community and celebrate the traditions here, such as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and the National Day of Prayer.

“We’ll be here until the last fireworks,” Samaniego said.

Despite news accounts of raids by federal immigration officials throughout the country, including Hall County, Latino families were out in large numbers enjoying the holiday.  

David Rodriguez, 30, and his cousin Andre Perez and their families pooled their resources together to put on a big picnic at Laurel Park. They too were at the park early in the morning to set up at a location close to the swings for their little children to enjoy.

A married warehouse worker with two little girls, Daleyza, 3, and Kayla, 5, Rodriguez said that no matter the occasion, his family feels at home celebrating U.S. holidays and traditions.

“Our girls are here, they’ll be going to school here, so we participate in all the holidays,”  Rodriguez said. “If it’s a festive day, we celebrate,”

Perez, an assistant manager at El Sombrero Mexican restaurant on Dawsonville Highway, said he has fun celebrating the Fourth of July just as many Americans enjoy the Cinco de Mayo festivities.

“We’re here, we celebrate,” Perez said.

Maria Ruiz, 35, and her friend, Veronica Salazar, 26, brought their young daughters to Longwood Park so they could play in the water at the lake’s shore.

“This is a chance to get out of the house and enjoy time off from work,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said she would like to learn English and take adult education classes, but can’t because she’s undocumented.

Ruiz’s daughter, 4-year-old Janeili Santana, ran out of the water to grab a slice of pizza from a large pie that the young moms brought for their children.

Salazar said she’s been able to take some classes after getting her legal papers in order.

“The classes will help me help my daughters with their school work,” Salazar said.

Salazar said she would like to see her daughters — Karen Lara, 8, Ariana Lara, 6, and Andrea Lara, 4 — feel like they belong here.