'Señora Chela Day' honors sister-city pioneer

Ashland will declare "Señora Chela Day" today at a bench dedication in Ashland's Lithia Park, in honor of the woman whose vision 40 years ago conceived the idea of Sister City and academic connections between Ashland and Guanajuato, Mexico.

Mayor John Stromberg planned to read the proclamation at 4 p.m. in a ceremony with a visiting delegation from Guanajuato.

Graciela Magdalena Tapp-Kocks, known in Ashland and Guanajuato as Señora Chela, is a professor-emeritus of foreign languages and literature of Southern Oregon University. Since joining the SOU staff in 1966, Sra. Chela has become a virtual ambassador to Guanajuato according to a press release from the Amigo Club.

"Señora Chela's never-flagging determination and hard work have inspired others to keep the Sister City program alive for more than 40 years," said Betzabé "Mina" Turner, president of the Amigo Club, an Ashland citizen's support group that celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. "She has nurtured a people-to-people, borderless link between Ashland and Guanajuato, and by extension, between the United States and Mexico. It shines as an exemplary example of what President Eisenhower envisioned after the Second World War by creating the Sister City program to promote peace in the world. Thousands of people, here and in Guanajuato, through their exposure to people of a foreign culture and language, have come to realize that they are united by their common humanity."

The Guanajuato-Ashland relationship has encouraged academic and cultural exchanges and led to 80 marriages between citizens of the two cities. The program counts on the support of the two city's governments, chambers of commerce, service clubs, and the universities of Guanajuato and Southern Oregon.

More than 1,000 students and academics have participated in the university exchange program, known as La Amistad (Friendship), and thousands of citizens have traveled between the two cities and provided lodging for visitors from Ashland and Guanajuato. Ashland has donated a fire truck and equipment, medical supplies, an ambulance, and books to Guanajuato institutions, as well as fire and police training.

Guanajuato presented the "El Pípila de Plata" award to Sra. Chela in 1994 for her role as founder of the academic and cultural exchange. She is the only foreigner to receive the award, named in honor of a revolutionary hero, and traditionally given each year to a Guanajuato citizen has performed "friendship and service" to and for the city.

Working mostly behind the scenes, Señora Chela inspired hundreds of people to support the Sister City and Amistad programs, according to Amigo Club representatives.

"Señora Chela is the heart, the mind and the soul of the program," former Guanajuato State Gov. Juan Carlos Romero Hicks said in an interview. "She is truly multi-cultural "… I have never met a college professor who has changed so many people's lives. Romero Hicks and his brother, Juan Luis, each earned master's degrees as exchange students at Southern Oregon University.

"It seems fitting as we enter the fifth decade of the Sister City ties that Ashland recognize Sra. Chela's civic contribution through the symbolic bench dedication and other activities on her 'day,'" said Mina Turner (note: this name has been corrected), Amigo Club president.

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