The members of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma and their guests celebrated Mexican Independence Day in Windsor by raising money for next year’s college scholarships and honoring the 66 recipients of this year’s awards. In the process, six Latina girls raised even more money by competing to become queen of the event.

Latinos Unidos has been awarding scholarships to Latino students in Sonoma County since its co-founder, Gerald F. Cox, a former monsignor in the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, borrowed $500 from a gambler and awarded five $100 scholarships.

“The students were not participating in school activities. They were dropping out, and their parents were not engaged in the education process,” Cox, 90, recalled at the celebration. This year, 66 Latino high school seniors were each awarded between $600 and $1,000.

After he left the priesthood, Cox recruited George Ortiz, a social worker in Healdsburg, and they founded Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma in 1966.

Sonoma State University student Candido Morales was hired to organize student clubs and a congress at SSU attended by well-known Latinos, including Cesar Chavez. Today, Morales heads the organization’s sports funding.

Ortiz, 81, said many Latino students were not excelling in school in 1966. “They were getting C’s. In the past we considered that a ‘bad’ student,” he said.

“This year they are getting 3.8 GPAs, and a lot of the kids are going to schools out of the area. It’s been an evolution of accomplishment. The parents have been supportive,” Ortiz said.

“Things have changed in the last three of four years. The curriculum is more rigorous with Advanced Placement courses for college credit,” said Roberto Ramirez, a Latinos Unidos commissioner.

A highlight of the evening at the Mary Agatha Furth Center was the coronation of this year’s queen of the Independence Day celebration: Rosaura Lugo, 16, of Santa Rosa, a Piner High School student. Last year’s queen was Jennifer Hernandez, 20, of Windsor, who attends Sacramento State University.

Giselle Gonzalez, 15, a sophomore at Roseland Prep High, was selected first princess, and Stefani Amaya, 17, a senior at Rancho Cotate High, was named second princess. Other members of the court were Joussie Camacho, 16, of Piner High School; Michelle Perez, 15, of Maria Carrillo High School; and Jarely Gonzalez, 16, of Tomales High.

The queen and her court sold $9,100 worth of raffle tickets, with prizes of $500, $300 and $200.

“Last year, a very needy family won,” said Lucia Ortiz-Morales, Latinos Unidos’ treasurer and queen of the 1970 event.

The bulk of the scholarship fund, $55,000 this year, is donated by businesses and organizations in the county.

“This year we had a bumper crop,” Ortiz said about the 66 scholarship recipients.

“This is more than a festivity, it’s a very serious event and purpose,” he said. “We hope new generations continue that effort. If they drop the ball, we will go backwards.”

Contact Windsor Towns Correspondent James Lanaras at Windsor.Town.News@gmail.com.