I am Latina. According the U.S. Census Bureau, the term denotes my ethnic origin and not my race, which, my grandparents would insist, is white. But that government definition is a matter of contention among Latinos, most of whom shrug it aside to embrace Latino as both a race and an ethnicity.
“Latino” is an umbrella term; beneath its canopy are the citizens of 21 Spanish-speaking nations. This culturally cacophonous clumping together, too, is a matter of contention within the group and it has been for, oh, I don’t know, forever — because a Puerto Rican is not a Dominican and a Mexican is not an El Salvadoran.
I am a New Mexican, to be specific about my origin. To say I am a New Mexican is to say that I was born and raised in the state with the highest percentage of the country’s Hispanics (another umbrella term). Roughly one of every two New Mexicans is Hispanic, nearly all of them native-born and many like my own family, which can trace its history in New Mexico to the 17th century.
After college, I lived in California, the state with the most Latinos. I moved here from Denver, where one in three residents is Latino.
Richmond, then, is the first city I’ve called home where I had to go searching for Latinos.
“Where is everyone?” I ask the guy selling me tortillas at El Rey Latino Market on West Broad Street.
He shrugs and says, “We’re here.” Estamos aquí.
(Left to right) Maribel Moheno, Oscar Contreras, Alexander Guzman, Rafaela Torres, Erica Coffey, Tayna Gonzalez, Juan Santacoloma, Alexis Almon. (Photos by Michael K. Lease)
The U.S. Census estimates that as of July 2014, there were 60,000 Latinos in the city of Richmond, and Chesterfield and Henrico counties — about 7 percent of the population. “Which I think is a very, very low estimate,” says Michel Zajur, founder and CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Zajur was born in Mexico and moved to Richmond when he was 2. That was in the early 1960s, and “there were virtually no Latinos,” he says. “The growth of the community has been astounding.”
Between 2000 and 2010, one in three new Virginians was Hispanic, according to a 2011 analysis by Qian Cai of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. Since 2010, the pace has slowed (to be surpassed by the Asian growth rate), she says, but between immigration and fertility rates, Virginia added another 105,000 Hispanics from 2010 to 2014.
Which brings us now to The Valentine where, in late February, a group of about 100 people, nearly all Latino, gathered for a discussion on the need to move Richmond’s social, cultural and political identity beyond black and white.
It was the fourth and final gathering coordinated by three University of Richmond professors — Laura Browder, Patricia Herrera and Lázaro Lima. The trio, with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association, partnered with the Sacred Heart Center, the Richmond Public Library and The Valentine in a much-needed airing of perspectives preceding next year’s planned Valentine exhibition on Latinos in Richmond.
“When we are talking about breaking the black and white binary, we don’t mean to exalt one group at the expense of another,” Lima told the room. Instead, he says, what must take place is a questioning of this country’s story, which is often told in the relationship of white to black. That narrative neglects Latino history in the U.S. and that exclusion, says Lima, “gives us very little opportunity to think through what it means that in the U.S., we now have more than 54 million people of Latin American ancestry. That means we have more Latinos in the U.S. than we have Spaniards in Spain.”
In the audience were both a white Puerto Rican and black Puerto Rican, a daughter of a Mexican father and El Salvadoran mother, a Mexican-American from the Southwest, and I’m certain a few South Americans were in the mix. Agustin Bravo, the Purépechan man from Michoacán whom I wrote about in a July 19 Sunday Story, spoke: “I am 100 percent indigenous. I wanted to let you know we are living here. Not just my group, but many groups. We speak our own languages. We have our own traditions, our own culture.”
The Rev. Sylvester “Tee” Turner, director of reconciliation programs for Hope in the Cities and an African-American, taking in all the diversity within the group, offered the room something that was both sound advice and a fair warning.
“If the Latino community does not educate us, then we will define you and if we define you, it’s never going to be good for you.”
The discussion brought focus to a many-years-long conversation about where and how Latinos fit in here. In that way, the gathering was both an expression of yearning to be acknowledged and a declaration of intent to stake a claim in the shared future of the region.
There is, on Seventh Street in Manchester, an early 20th-century brick warehouse emblazoned with the words “Aragon Coffee Bldg.” Aragon is a common Spanish last name.
I used to pass the building, now home to Blue Bee Cider, every day. Each time I did, a small cultural transaction took place, a nod of affirmation between past and present. Estamos aquí. We are here. We have always been here.
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