Diversity is a positive experience only if it is accompanied with respect, understanding, gratitude, and hope. It is not a surprise to any of us that the United States has become a highly multicultural and ethnically diverse country. As a nation, America has embraced, through the years, peoples of different languages, ethnicities, colors and cultures. This warm attitude has made this nation one of the most plural and welcoming civilizations on the face of the earth – a trait only possible because of the faith journey on which our Founding Fathers established the foundations of this land of freedom.
The relationship and influence of the Hispanic culture in the U.S. has a history that dates back to the late 1800s, in which the first immigrants began to arrive in search of better opportunities and looking for quality of life. This interesting association has extended its influence to the arts, sports, religion, gastronomy, education, linguistics and economy.
As the overflow of immigration began to arrive one thing became clear – many are here because their home countries have forsaken them and are failing to serve the needs of their own people. Instead, many Latin American governments have sided with continuous habits of political corruption, rampant violence, social intolerance, systematic violation of human rights, and chaotic economic administration. It came to the point in which the only hope of survival for many Latinos became to “look for the American dream” – a dream which many have accomplished through hard work, education, responsible family relationships, and love for this country.
However, I must acknowledge there have also been contrasting stories that in many occasions have made us question the social implications and ramifications of our relationship. Safety, legality, respect, and willingness to serve are topics that we must also teach to our immigrant communities and especially to the 2nd generation of Hispanics who have the privilege to call themselves American by birth.
As a Hispanic and American citizen, I still believe it’s possible to accomplish unity in the midst of our diversity. Let me share what I’m saying with a practical and personal example.
I remember coming to America for the first time in 1995 to attend college in a small town in Cleveland, Tenn. I had just turned 18 and left my country of Peru with a bag full of dreams and high hopes. My parents sent me to America under a student visa and advised me to study hard, mature (something I must be honest to say I had not done much while living at home), and learn as much as possible.
Once I got to Tennessee, I wasn’t able to speak much English and worked washing dishes in the cafeteria of the university to pay for some of my personal expenses. However, there was an instance of my life as a Hispanic college student in the U.S. for which I am deeply grateful today and makes me believe it is possible to find this unity within our diversity.
One Saturday noon I found myself needing a good haircut. Because I did not own a car and my father had said explicitly that nothing of that sort would come out of his pocket unless I would prove I had done well in my courses and worked consistently, I decided to wander around the neighborhood trying to find a haircut place. After several minutes of walking I found myself in front of the rail tracks and right across there was an old haircut shop called “Joe’s.”
I walked in and to my surprise the place was packed with old white gentlemen. When they saw me, I could feel by the way they looked at me and the silence that captured the atmosphere that they had not seen a young brown Peruvian before. I still wonder today if they were ready for one at that moment.
Joe, the owner of the place, was a white male in his early sixties. The first day he gave me a rough look and simply asked, “Young man, can I help you?” In my broken English I tried to explain to him what I wanted. It seemed he understood well, because he did an excellent job.
That first day he did not say much and neither did I. But for the next four years I kept coming for my regular haircut and got to know Joe well. He introduced to me other fine people such as Larry, Mark, Glenn, Bob, Rich, and many other hard working white men who helped me improve my “southern” English and showed me to love the southern culture, specifically its amazing food (homemade fried chicken, ‘tato salad, sweet tea, coleslaw salad, bacon strips, and so forth) and its joyful country music.
On the other hand, I taught them two of the most valuable words we Latinos can say to anyone: “amigo” (friend) and “familia” (family). In reality this group of men became my amigos and were the only familia I had for four years while in college. I exposed them to our salsa and merengue music, contagious rhythms that we Latinos enjoy as part of our culture, as well as to some of our Hispanic food. They took me to their homes and shared with me their special celebrations, their homemade food, but most important they offered me their friendship. Our relationship was such that we were able to overcome all cultural, racial, and even language barriers.
I will never forget the day of my college graduation. I went early a Saturday morning to get my regular haircut to make sure I looked good for commencement. There they were … my amigos were waiting on me with a most delicious breakfast.
After eating together, they all surprised me with an envelope with a generous monetary gift to start my new life in Chicago, where I went to pursue my post-graduate education. With the passage of the years I kept in touch with some of them but later I learned they all had passed away.
A few months ago, after 22 years of this beautiful experience, I took my wife and four children to Cleveland and showed them where Joe’s used to be. I told my family that the best example of unity in the midst of diversity I ever learned did not come from a college classroom, a political speech, or (sad to say) from a church pulpit. It came from generous values I found in simple but sincere older white men.
As a Pastor and community servant to many Hispanics in Gainesville, my prayer and hope during these times of much controversial discussions is to become a bridge builder to a better community, to a new Hispanic generation with Christian principles, and to help in building a greater and safer nation for our children. As I said in the beginning, unity in the midst of diversity is only possible through respect, understanding, gratitude, and hope – values that only come from a heart in which the Great Commandment “to love God, your neighbor and yourself” has found real meaning.
God Bless America! Happy 4th of July!