The St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church community has helped Nadia Zuniga stay connected to her Mexican roots since she was a child. In the late 1990s, a nun made weekly visits to the Roswell apartment complex where Zuniga lived with her parents, and led some of the residents in prayers of the rosary.
This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Living Northside magazine.
“Every Wednesday, we’d [gather at] each other’s apartment for her visit,” says Zuniga, 24. “I remember everyone knew each other not only because of school but because of church.”
Zuniga was born in Hildalgo, Mexico, and came to the United States as a toddler. Her parents joined the Alpharetta church when she was 7, giving her an opportunity to be around Hispanic culture. “When we first came here to the church, I remember it was like seeing someone with a familiar face and your skin type,” she says.
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She was amazed. At school there were only six or seven students of Latino descent, Zuniga adds. “Coming here you saw more families and kids who could relate to what you were going through and overcoming the English barrier,” she says.
There are 1,400 Hispanic member families at St. Thomas, with 4,000 families overall. Most of the Hispanic families are from Mexico but congregants hail from all over, says Monsignor Daniel Stack.
Hispanics represented 9.8 percent of Georgia’s total population in 2011, according to Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Georgia ranked 10th among states with the fastest growth in Hispanic population in the United States between the years 2000 and 2011, the Pew report says. People of Mexican descent represented 61 percent of Georgia’s Hispanic population, and 6 percent of the state’s residents.
Stewart, Telfair and Paulding counties ranked in the top 10 among fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the nation during those years.
“What binds us all together is the language and the general culture,” says Tamara Carrera, a native of Ecuador and executive director of Community Assistance Center, which provides services to Sandy Springs and Dunwoody families in need.
“You hear someone speaking Spanish and there’s a natural bond,” Carrera says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from Texas or Puerto Rico or Santiago [Chile] or Boston. We start talking and we connect. Then you get together, put on some music and it’s a party.”
Hispanic culture thrives in multiples ways in metro Atlanta, says Lance Robertson, president of Buckhead-based National Black and Latino Council, which links small businesses and professionals through seminars, social gatherings and sporting events.
“If you look inside the Latin community you see so many different sensitivities and expressions of pride,” Robertson says. “They support the stores that specialize in the foods that remind them of home. They fly the flags of their countries of origin.”
Andi Rivera, spokesperson for the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says Latino pride has resulted in Atlanta joining the world of Major League Soccer.
“I think Arthur Blank was so impressed by the total sell-out of the Georgia Dome during [the 2014] World Cup ‘friendly’ soccer match between Mexico and Nigeria that he decided to bring the first Major League Soccer team to Atlanta in 2017,” she says. “Who do you think the target market is? Latinos love futbol.”
But that’s not all, Rivera adds.
“We also love American football, basketball and baseball,” says Rivera, who is of Cuban descent. “And we appreciate the arts. Shows like the [‘Frida & Diego’] exhibit at the High Museum were a huge success because we went to see them.”
Zuniga says that while her heritage is always important, she identifies with life in the United States more than Mexico. “My traditions and roots are still there, very bright and very alive,” she says. “At the same time, if I talk to a born-and-raised Georgian with blond hair and blue eyes, we might have the same traditions. I love good country food and sweet tea. I love going to Stone Mountain to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. That’s when I say, ‘Wow, I’m an American.’”
One Sunday each month, a young adult ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas prepares and serves coffee and sandwiches to the homeless on the streets of metro Atlanta.
A young adult ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas holds an intramural soccer tournament quarterly at the church. Players are generally 18-30 years old and do not have to be church members. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. www.sta.org