Friday, September 26, 2008

Language – I am continuously amazed at my faith tradition’s repeated excuse for failing to successfully reach-out to the Latino community. So often congregations want material in Spanish or want to hold services in Spanish and failing those claim to not have the resources to serve that community. What they fail to acknowledge is that most of the Latino population in the United States is bi-lingual, often with English being dominant. This is not really a result of assimilation over the generations (as historically with other groups) but a result of adaptation. Typically the first generation retains a strong preference for Spanish however they begin to add English since this is needed for work and life in the United States. However this generation will typically still speak Spanish at home.

The second generation grows-up with Spanish at home and English outside the home. They are truly bi-lingual. As they progress through the educational system English begins to dominate; again following the old immigrant/assimilation patterns. However it is in adulthood that there is a change. This generation often seeks to regain what they had in the Spanish dominant culture. Bi-lingualism and access to Spanish reinforces the Latinos cultural identity.

Why is this pattern different: proximity to ancestral countries and continued population growth. In the old patterns the immigrant’s country of origin was far distant for travel in those eras. Furthermore while many of the groups came from a particular country, the Latino population in the United States can come from South America (12 countries with a total population of almost 380 million), Central America (7 countries, 41 million) or North America and the Caribbean (16 countries). What many people in the United States of America forget is that Mexico is a part of North America. Furthermore many people in the United States frequently travel to or vacation in Spanish speaking countries. Lastly much of the United States was at one time part of Mexico or a territory claimed by Spain and these areas often retain their Spanish names. Lastly there are places in the United States where Spanish culture and language predominate.

So Unitarian Universalists and others who wish to reach-out to the Latino community should remember that we retain Spanish because we want to. However those who would be attracted to our faith are typically bi-lingual, often with advance degrees and not necessarily former Catholics. Often we have children who are also bi-lingual to some degree or have taken Spanish in school. We don’t assimilate we adapt to our surroundings and in so doing transform our surroundings. So if you want to reach-out to the Latino community be prepared to be changed.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Last summer several social justice organizations in the greater Houston area began distributing bottles of water to day laborers. These individuals were often working outdoors in the hot weather with little to no potable water. To me this was an act of mercy and I contributed 3 cases of bottled water for distribution. However when I tried to elicit help from some of my liberal contacts I received a great amount of resistance. They were reluctant to contribute water in plastic bottles due to environmental impact. So while they debated and tried to find acceptable solutions they were not helping the day laborers. Ultimately I joined volunteers from other faith traditions and distributed the water bottles. If we allow our idealism to blind us to the need of others we are only serving our own delusions.
It is interesting to note that a Health Fair for Day Laborers in the Greater Houston area has been postponed so that the Day Laborers can take advantage of work availability due to damage from hurricane Ike. This is a reality of life for Day Laborers, many of which are undocumented immigrants; rather than overtaxing our health systems, when voluntary organizations offer them health care they must forgo this generous gift in order to make a living.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

As a Unitarian Universalist and a Puerto Rican I am often faced with Identity Politics. On May 5th I received well wishes from colleagues and friends on the celebration of “Cinco de Mayo.” And as in the past I gently informed them that this is a Mexican holiday and that I am not Mexican.

When Barack Obama became the Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States. The pundits were quick to declare this as a historical moment where a major U.S. political party had nominated an African American for this office. Next they underscored how Obama was the son of an African Immigrant and an American mother. They stumbled over each other trying to reduce Obama’s identity to something historic and identifiable (Black, African American, Person of Color). Then the issue turned to the fact that his mother was white, so there were more identity questions (biracial, multiracial, mixed race). Thankfully no one has used the old term mulato but the campaign is still young.

In a recent report from a Unitarian Universalist Association committee the phrase “…people of color; Latino, Latina, Hispanic, multiracial, from a historically marginalized community…” was used several times. While I have been a strong proponent of more inclusive language even I stumble on these long phrases. This is not to say that group identity and self-identity are not important, it is a criticism on the inadequacy of our language and labels. At one time we used the phrase “minority groups” but some people complained that the term “minority” was somewhat derogatory and it has largely fallen out of favor.

In the 1990s American Reductionism assigned people to essentially two groups: People of Color and those who were not people of color, often called White and sometimes Euro-Americans. However this compromise formula has not been completely accepted as it is often an identity imposed on people and not necessarily a self-identity of individuals or ethnic groups.

In our Unitarian Universalist faith, reductionism has caused misunderstanding, conflict and disenfranchisement.