The Only Latino in Town?
We’re still afraid to be who we are
By Jorge Navarro
It was the summer of 1973, the sun was shining, the sky was an incredible blue, the greens intense and deep. There was music on every street corner. Everything looked different, certainly different from the Los Angeles of brown-grey skies and urban sprawl. Saturday Market, the Oregon Country Fair, White Bird, Mama’s Home Fried Truck Stop were all in the early stages of their being. Tom McCall was Oregon’s Republican governor leading the charge on environmental protection. Jerry Rust was a Hoedad crew leader. Plumes of ash from open field burning were floating through air. What an amazing time … and as I looked around … I thought for sure I was the only Latino in town.
It’s been 37 years and have things changed? A couple years ago I had the privilege of being at a meeting of “Latinas Unidas.” This group of Latina women was made up of teachers, nurses, counselors, administrators, home makers, industry workers and the like. One young woman introduced herself as a teacher and as she described her first impressions of Eugene, arriving here some five years back, she noted that when she looked around that day, she thought she was the only Latina in town …
At first we were all amused, but I for one think we were also left wondering: What sort of social environment produces a dynamic where we, and those who look and act like us, can vanish from sight?
With a knowing nod, the stereotypical response I have gotten from most folks is, “Well you know this place is very white.” It suddenly dawned on me that back in ’73 the undocumented imperative I heard was “disappear.” Considering that I am more “olive complected” than brown, more West Coast in appearance than Mexican, I followed directions and culturally speaking vanished. In hindsight, cracks in the premise of this place being “white” began to appear immediately.
Winter came along, I needed work, so I joined the Hoedads. There I met Santos, a tall, wiry, Puerto Rican dude who had encyclopedic knowledge of Caribbean and Latin music. He went on to be the voice of LCC’s Tropical Beat for many years. In 1972, just before I arrived, a group of Chicanos from LCC and the UO started what would become Centro LatinoAmericano. Emilio Hernandez, currently vice provost at the UO, was playing music; Fernal Lopez, currently an educator, was a musician and band leader; Maxine Proskurowski (there’s a good solid Latin surname), born and raised in Mexico City, was working with Latino families; Jeanie Campos, Anna Maria Dudley, Armando Morales … you get my drift.
Doctors, dentists, teachers, activists, I could fill pages with the names of Latinos who made and continue to make a positive impact on this community. Now that’s not counting the unsung heroes who were growing our food, raising families and building this community. I certainly was not the only Latino in town!
So, how can it be that 35 years later, somehow a young Latina can still feel so alone? There are certainly more Latinos, the U.S. Census of 2000 confirms this. Latino-based businesses are springing up all over town. I have a theory. We’re stuck. We’re afraid to be who we are! The undocumented imperative? Don’t stand out! (Purple hair is OK.) Bear with me. A friend of mine was at a conference in Miami not very long ago and while strolling down the boardwalk went into a small store. There a Latina store clerk, in one of those mellifluous full voices inquired, “Hey doll, where are you from? You’re not Cuban, certainly not Mexican.” My friend was swept away. There was a genuine curiosity and welcoming that made her feel good about being who she was!
So what’s up with us? Are we still undecided? “Diversity” is bandied about as if it is a positive thing, but truth is we don’t believe it. Just read the opinion section of our local newspaper. When applied to financial investments “Make sure to diversify your portfolio” makes perfect sense. If a farmer grows only one crop, common knowledge says that crop is at risk.
Diversity makes the environment — and us — stronger! I don’t understand why we are still arguing about whether speaking more than one language is an asset or a detriment. I don’t understand why when someone is different, so many feel threatened. I do know that most of us don’t fit into the “one size fits all” vision of what it is to be American. There is a photo exhibit at the Museum of Art on the UO campus called “Shared Communities, Mixed Identities.” Check it out! There are pictures of local families and they are made up of African American, British, Caribbean, Caucasian, Chinese, Chicano, Cuban, Filipino, German, Honduran, Hungarian, Irish, Latina, Mayan, Native American and Yaqui heritages. Every time I see the exhibit I grin. This is us. This is diversity. This is America.
It is time to embrace our diversity, to really believe it and get curious. The next time a Latina or Latino comes into town I hope they’ll be able to grin and say, “Sweet. I know I’m not alone.”
Jorge Navarro, raised in Los Angeles, is a first generation Mexican American. He is co-director of programs and development for Community Alliance of Lane County.