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Continuing education, achieving goals and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps were the messages of the Nebraska Latino-American Commission's fifth annual Hispanic Heritage Month State Commemoration at the Capitol on Friday.

"It is imperative for success and change for all mis hermanos and hermanas to work and never give up," said Lazaro Spindola, executive director the commission. "Develop yourself and your community."

The annual celebration attended by about 30 people, mainly middle and high school students, marks Hispanic Heritage Month.

Ramon Otero, vice chairman of the commission's board of directors opened with a story of his move from El Paso, Texas, to Lexington, where he is a high school principal.

When he went to the school to interview for the job, he said, he waited at the counter with a young Hispanic girl who looked upset. She said she'd been waiting for a while.

Otero asked the receptionist why she wasn't helping the girl, and the receptionist said: "these people" need to learn English if they want to live here.

"That rubbed me the wrong way," Otero said.

Nebraska's Hispanic population has nearly doubled in the past decade, growing to 167,405, or 9.2 percent of the population.

Since he's taken over at Lexington, Otero said, he's seen Hispanic students succeed, and more of them than ever go to college -- even abroad in China and Spain.

Keynote speaker Severiano Franco, founder and former commission director, talked about education and how tough economic situations shouldn't turn students into second-class citizens in low-paying jobs.

The event honored former commissioners, local student organizations for their service to the Latino-American community, and local filmmakers for a 2010 documentary, "When We Stop Counting," which chronicled the lives of six Latino high school students in Crete.

Also recognized were winners of the Hispanic Heritage Month Essay Contest, which was open to students in grades 6 to 12 with the theme "Keeping the Promise: Unity, Strength and Leadership."

Out of 175 entries in the high school division, Luciano Ramirez, Yracema Rivas, Michael Nguyen and Elizabeth Moro won.

In the middle school division, the winners were Irvin Olivas, Judit Estrada, Preston Hall and Stephany Corona.

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Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120, jpascale@journalstar.com or follow him @LJSPascale.

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