*Stories marked with an asterisk were written by experienced contributing editors with the goal of showing North Dakota's diversity.
Yolanda Rojas, founder, and director of Hispanic Advocacy of ND (H.A.N.D), and her family moved from Tucson, Arizona to Watford City, North Dakota in 2014. With her husband Ruben, they were looking for a change of life and better employment opportunities, so ND was the state to venture off to do just that! They crammed all their belongings into a U-Haul and went on the longest road trip of their lives with their five kids.
The transition from two opposite states was drastic and challenging for the entire family. Their first year was very difficult: getting acclimated to the weather; small-town life; the rich culture of Scandinavians and Norwegians; it was all overwhelming. It was the first time they had lived in a predominantly White community. The family kept to themselves. Yolanda describes feeling like a part of her identity had been buried.
Watford City is a great place to start a “new life” and that was exciting and painful. The new life had no sign of her Hispanic cultural traditions or her language. They learned what culture shock felt like at its core – painful! Slowly, the family got involved in sports, church, and community events and started making friends with other members of the community. They learned that Watford City had people from all different walks of life starting new lives, too. The Rojas family fell in love with this little town and now call it HOME.
Yolanda explained, “Our experience helped me realize that we are not the only family facing difficulties as newcomers. Many other families have greater challenges than culture shock -- they do not speak, read, or write in English. This leads to not having adequate access to vital services, community events, and local news, to name a few. As I got more involved in the community, I learned there were hundreds of other Hispanics who had been living here longer and were not plugging into the community due to the language and cultural barriers. I kept hearing the same story over and over; 'Hispanics are only here for better work opportunities. We are not welcomed here, we do not belong here, and there is nothing for us to do here. We work, go to school, shop, and maybe attend church.' Those stories kept me up at night and disturbed my soul. The need was great and thankfully my community leaders have been very supportive and helpful in finding ways to make Watford City more welcoming and inclusive.”
This is how Hispanic Advocacy of ND came to fruition. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing opportunities that empower and enrich the Hispanic community in North Dakota. The mission is to foster integration and inclusion by bridging language barriers between Spanish and English, offering essential business, educational, and financial workshops, and creating meaningful Hispanic cultural exchange opportunities. It is committed to building a stronger, more united community where every individual can thrive, contribute, and be celebrated for their unique heritage.
December 2021, HAND hosted its first Hispanic Christmas event, La Posada 2021 in Watford City. This community event was a great way to include the Hispanic community and celebrate their cultural heritage traditions during the holidays! Las posadas are Christmas parties, a traditional celebration during the holidays in Hispanic countries. The La Posada event showcases the most popular traditions:
- Pedir Posada: caroling, but in Hispanic countries the carolers impersonate Mary and Joseph asking for a room at the Inn as Mary is about to give birth and needs a place to rest.
- La Pastorela: a children’s Christmas nativity play. These plays have different versions of the nativity story. In the past two years, they presented “The Star of Bethlehem.” In 2023, they are doing, “The Story of Christmas.” Yolanda says, “The plays are acted in Spanish, and we include English narration. We want all of our audience to understand and feel included. What a great way to bridge barriers between two languages and help people build connections! My favorite part of the Pastorela is the music that is played throughout the play, with songs like 'El Burrito Sabanero' and 'Los Pastores a Belen', two popular Christmas songs.”
- El Ponche: a fruit punch made with fresh fruit given to all attendees. This is a staple drink during the holidays at Las Posadas. El Ponche includes cane sugar, guava, oranges, hibiscus, apples, tejocotes (Mexican hawthorn), pears, tamarind, cinnamon, and piloncillo (brown sugar). All ingredients are boiled in water on low heat. Yolanda said, "It is a delightful drink especially on a cold day."
- Las Piñatas: the highlight of all Las Posadas. “I might sound dramatic saying this, but it's illegal to have a Posada and not have piñatas. They are the highlight of the event for the children. I love seeing kids of all ages round-up and get in line to get a chance to break the piñata to get the candy! I love seeing their little faces filled with joy. At La Posada, the piñatas are not only for the children, but adults also get a chance to let their inner child come out and hit the piñata. It is a great time for many”, said Yolanda.
The food and music bring people together to enjoy a good time. At La Posada, there have been Mexican, Salvadorian, and Columbian food vendors that have made a staple dish from their country to sell at the event. The music always brings both kids and adults to the dance floor for a good time.
La Posada brings people from all different walks of life together to experience and celebrate the Hispanic Christmas traditions. The event is translated from beginning to end, so that every attendee not only experiences the richness of the culture but also understands it. La Posada is one of the first initiatives HAND is taking to help make Watford City, McKenzie County, North Dakota a more culturally diverse and welcoming place! Yolanda concludes, “I highly encourage all the catalyst for change to stay intentional about enriching and adding value to your communities.”
“When you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to their head; if you speak to him in his language, you speak to his heart,” Nelson Mendela.
About the Author
Yolanda Rojas is the founder and director of Hispanic Advocacy of North Dakota. She is certified in legal, business, and Medical English to Spanish translation from the University of Arizona. In collaboration with the Long X Arts Foundation and McKenzie County, she has been translating community events to help bridge the language barrier and create a more inclusive and welcoming community. Yolanda is employed at McKenzie Electric Cooperative where she helps translate documents for Spanish-speaking consumers. She was awarded NDRECA’s Community Service award at the annual meeting in Bismarck on Feb 2023, for her efforts with HAND. Her love for learning, growing, and being passionate about bringing her culture to ND has orchestrated this organization. Her vision of the future for Hispanics in ND is bright. Her efforts through HAND are to empower Hispanics to thrive in ND. Yolanda is a wife and mother to 5 children whom she adores with all her heart. Her family is her greatest motivation and passion to continue to be a catalyst for change.