Maintaining Culture and Roots in America

By Marcel Meljanac

Leo Manzano, Reyna Grande, Rita Moreno, Herman Badillo, and Isabel Allende are all successful foreign-born individuals that have made an impact in their respective communities and across the nation. Their contributions have shaped the image some see immigrants trying to chase the American dream. The idea that an individual from a different country moves to make a better life out of themselves should be inspirational to all. The true notion of sacrifice is in the stories and the people like some of them I listed. Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican actress, dancer and singer lived the American dream as a Hollywood star, she was a naturally talented star in her role The Westside Story. Moreno was born in Humacao, moved to New York at the age of five, and by her teens was already an actress on Broadway. In 1961, Rita Moreno became the first Puerto Rican actress to win an Oscar since the 1950s. In the following years she would go on to win an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony Award to add some weight to her trophy cabinet. Now with this level of successful, it was never always a perfectly painted picture for Moreno. She described her roles in the following, “I played a lot of señorita, conchita, Lolita spitfire roles. Everything but an American girl,” Moreno further added, “I was always the utilitarian ethnic. I hated it.” There has always been mistreatment with minorities and still is going on to this day. Many might think ‘this was in the 60s, it is in the past,’ but it has been brewing for a while. Leo Manzano was born in Mexico in 1984, moved to the United States with his parents at four years old, and achieved a silver medal in the fifteen-hundred-meter race at the 2012 Olympics. He was representing his adopted country as he won the silver medal. As celebrating an incredible individual feat, he had the American flag draped over his shoulders and with a Mexican flag, held it up. The American public went ballistic and columnist Ruben Navarette called the gesture, “misguided and ill-mannered.” Navarette also stated that, “Manzano wasn’t there to compete for himself but to represent his country. All he had to do was decide which country that was. He chose not to choose. Navarette concluded that Leo Manzano put his ego above his U.S team, an act of selfishness and attention. This is a common reaction the public has towards the Latinx community when seeing success. Discrimination has been a part of many minority groups and how they are treated on a regular basis but particularly the Latinx community gets the worst end of the stick.
Edith Paredes, a mother of two boys Giovanni and Giuliano is from Asunción, Paraguay. She discussed her battles with discrimination along with her husband Alejandro’s battles who also experienced the wrath of discrimination. She is a language teacher at Mill Valley teaching children the language of Spanish and her husband, a Mexican business man and chef from Guanajuato, have been victims of what happens every day in the country of United States but sadly goes unnoticed. I asked her why she thinks discrimination is possible and directed to minorities, she responded saying:

The idea of discrimination will not change. It has been here in America for hundreds of years and will stay here until respect and gratitude is taught. The amount of work minorities do, the amount of money they do it for and the type of work they do will never be touched by an American, but in the Latinx community, it is an ongoing battle for family and for well-being.

How does one define Latinx? There is a very common misconception that the word Latinos or Latinas exclusively points to people from Mexico but in reality, any person from a Latin origin Spanish speaking country can be considered a Latino or a Latina. This community is a large group from country to country, and it is fueled by different traditions, folktales, family history, cuisine, and art. As each Latin country varies in certain aspects they also come together as one because of their common language and religion. The Spanish language and history has been engraved in the history and can be seen in architecture in numerous states in United States. In Ray Suarez’s publication Latino Americans: The 500-year Legacy That Shaped a Nation he points out a Spanish sailor named Pedro Menendez de Aviles established the settlement town St. Augustine. From 1565 to 1821, St. Augustine was a Spanish-speaking country. Suarez added, “The next time a tense local controversy breaks out in Florida over the use of Spanish, take a second to recall how much longer that tongue has been at home in the state than the relative newcomer, ingles.” This was a very strong argument and shed light on the presence of the Spanish language in America. To get a little closer to home the history of Latinx culture in Kansas City starts as far back as the 1830s as railroads became the next big thing of technology the United States of America was invested in. The Santa Fe Trail opened up trade from Mexico and this prompted immigration to Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri regions. As railroads continued to grow, more and more Mexican workers came. Instead of moving back and forth from Mexico and Kansas City, many decided to stay in America to be closer to work and not tire themselves out with travel. Many made sacrifices to stay in America, as the workers stayed, they stuck together. They later made ‘barrios’ a Spanish-speaking living space of a town or city. These barrios continued to grow and have character about themselves. Anywhere from the housing style, to the type of stores and vendors, to the unique aroma and hospitality represented. As workers found permanent work here in America their families came too. This domino effect of the United States of America needing inexpensive labor and turning to their southern neighbors has been a trend throughout the history books. From the railroads, to the depression, and now present-day farming and agriculture, the United States always loved inexpensive labor because frankly, other American citizens would not like back grueling work like that. As the Kansas City Metro area became more filled with Latinx culture, the whole of the area started to become distinctive and individualistic. Latino stores, Latino venders, Latino business and political representatives became to emerge. The Chicano movement in the 50s through the 70s was a crucial shift in America. The idea of self-pride really came to life because of this movement. Minorities having a voice together was part of the goal, and this movement wasn’t only a local Latino movement. It was recognized and had the support by the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers supported the movement and met with leaders of the Chicano movement. To pick a face of the Chicano movement is a hard feat to accomplish respectively because this was a collective effort from the walkouts in Los Angeles and a walkout here in Kansas City, to the Brown Brigades fighting for brown proud and educational equality, to Jose Gutierrez, one of the founders of La Raza Unida just to name a few. I would say the most remembered name coming out of the Chicano Movement was Cesar Estrada Chavez. Chavez was instrumental in forming equality and courage for farm workers. He established the United Farm Workers to make it possible for the workers to have a sense of dignity and power. In the 60s, Chavez demonstrated protest in a nonviolent way, by boycotts, pickets, and strike. The farm workers would boycott certain in season fruit and vegetables like grapes, and in 1966 the UFW had a strike in Texas in support of Schenley Farms.
For this history of Kansas City metro area of Latino community, and in the Latinx community in the general scope, that is all we have. There are only bits and pieces of recorded brilliance to share but at the same time, there are many gaps to fill and that is where my job came in. If you think about it, newscasters need journalism and historic artifacts need historians, folklore artifacts need folklorists, and the list can go on and on. Oral history is what people are interested in. Every single person and society have their own story. Every second that passes by in the present is history, and that very second can be recorded. Oral history can be recorded on text as a transcript, an audio recording or a visual recording. Oral history is very malleable and versatile, but with any practice comes criticism. As things start to work, others try to make it stop, that is why oral history has always had that target on its back of not being a reliable source because subjects might lie or not give you their full story. Oral History is an art and takes time to perfect just like a sport or playing the piano. You have to build trust with you subject or in this case to apply to sports and piano, the very thing in front of you. Questions should be brief but have enough character that the subject can form a lengthy, and descriptive response. As an oral historian, there are many responsibilities upon your shoulders and building trust with your subject should be one of the most important responsibilities to undertake. As the interviewer, to get one hundred percent of the story and some extra personal things the interviewee has not told anyone about, building a strong sense of trust with one another is key. My first interview was with Adrian Marquez, a Mexican American born in a small town in San Pedro, Mexico and I focused on his story of immigration to becoming an American citizen. As he moved away from his native country, he would have to leave his part of his culture and identity behind. As an oral historian I wanted to know how he and people like Edith Paredes could maintain their roots and culture while living so far away from their homeland. Trust was equally as important as the interviews themselves. As part of building their trust towards me I also shared parts of my life story. The reason I wanted to do this subject and interview Marquez and Paredes was because of the similarities and relation I could draw from their story. I am a first-generation child, my parents are Croatian and as Marquez and Paredes, they left a little bit of their culture and identity when making this move ten of hundreds of thousands of miles away to America. How did they maintain their culture and roots? Adrian Marquez, Edith Parades and millions of other Hispanic families maintain their culture and roots from passing down their name to their own family, incorporating the religion brought on to them, and integrating language as much as they can throughout their household. Family has a unique and strong value in everyone’s hearts. The bond that a family can make has a potential to be unbreakable sometimes, and the connection and love for each other can be unparalleled.

Adrian had to sacrifice his whole childhood and house he grew up in to make this move. Born in Chihuahua and growing up in San Pedro until he was 16. San Pedro was a small town and was easy to connect with childhood friends. His dad was a cotton farmer and Adrian was a big dreamer. He didn’t want to do the norm as being a cotton farmer but wanted to go to America, he was a dream chaser. As he looked onto a better life, he needed to cut losses and be away from the ones he loved. He came in this country as an illegal immigrant with his wife, his brother was the main reason why they made the big move to America. Adrian and his wife looked for work in places such as Cincinnati Ohio, Burlington, Iowa and finally settled in Lawrence and slowly but surely became a self-employed carpenter. He still talks to his brother almost every day because of that unbreakable bond they have.

As a foreigner trying to raise a family in America, the culture would be the biggest barrier to beat. Trying to fit in, in such a heavy populated country like America is hard. Being ready for change is one of the biggest fears and Edith overcame that fear and had to be open minded in every situation. Paredes described her experiences with the culture to be very a hard and a lengthy battle. First as an exchange student at Lee Summit high school and later in her teaching days as already being offered a teacher position her first year was the toughest her saying,

That quote made me think of education as a whole and how she viewed education, especially with her family.

That recording reminded me of Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us and she was exclaiming a part in her life that was very vivid. One evening her dad and her had a talk about education. Her dad loved to talk to her about the future, but more specifically, her future. A couple of quotes from that passage made me relate so much about my parents’ mindset of school. Grande’s father recalled:
“Here in this country, if you aren’t educated, you won’t go very far.”
“School is the key to the future. Without an education, you’re nothing.”
This really captured my whole parents message in two quotes. They would tell my siblings and I about the importance of education and how fortunate we should be of having the opportunity to have one. Edith Paredes also found the importance in education so much so, she took a risk going to United States to study more and be able to teach hundreds of kids coming to and from her classroom over the years. Adrian Marquez pushes his kids to continue with education and he taught them a very important three word saying when things would get tough, “Work, work, work.” One simple word, emphasized and repeated three times to set the point straight. Without hard work there is no progress and without passion there is no importance in what you are trying to accomplish.

Through my family, I was taught the Croatian language as my first language, the history of the Balkan countries, our traditions, and our Roman Catholic faith. Learning about the Hispanic history in America and reading certain readings about interviewees, I found religion to be a certain theme. The talk of religion for some interviewees made the interview more comfortable; in the Capturing the Reflective Voice: An Interview with Karen Mary Davalos interview by Teresa Barnett and Chon A. Noriega, Karen Davalos talked about the idea of religion and how she tackles that issue in her interviews. As she is Catholic, so are most of her interviewees and that makes the whole interview more comfortable for both parties. She stated, “I’ll talk about most Latinos in the U.S. They are very spiritual . . . Even unschooled folks will have a language where they make a distinction between their spirituality and their faith.” I am Catholic, and this made my nerves go away talking with Adrian Marquez before the interview about his beautiful paintings of Guadelupe or Jesus in his house. As the interview progressed, he also used religion as a way to maintain his culture and roots from Mexico.

He made sure to instill the Roman Catholic faith throughout his house with décor and further imprint religion with his continuing attendance at church. This continuing persistence of Roman Catholic faith made his kids instill the faith into their lives thus further preserving and retain the little bit of Mexico he has left.
Edith Paredes viewed the incorporation of religion into her family as a priority.

Both Edith and her husband, Alejandro made sure their two kids, Giuliano and Giovanni come to church with them and profess the Catholic faith. This is because of how their family raised them. It stood out to them like a sore thumb and was always something to grasp and connect the back-home memories with. Having the presence of religion in Edith’s life was something she had to take with her and to her future family. Religion can unite people from all over the world and this is why Edith does it, it connects her family and her country in blood and heart. Religion can inspire belief and courage. It can also be used to find oneself eternally for a better and more positive lifestyle.
Most Latinos and Latinas are raised Catholic, and I can relate to this because I was raised Catholic, too. I always see mother praying in every situation she can. As a child, I saw her praying and to me, I processed praying as a sense of security and hope. Once I got older and went to church I found that mother’s praying was exactly that. Security and hope was the major key things I took away and still think of as I see my mother praying. Religion is one thing I will take from my parent’s teachings and build upon it and share it to my future kids. To keep the idea of security and hope going and maintain that unique connection to the country of Croatia that my parents passed down to me.

These stories, these feeling, can’t be written in textbook, these are genuine stories that many do not have the opportunity to hear. A person’s story from moving to another country, from learning the language, and having to get a job and feed a family. If there were modern day superheroes, successful immigrants that moved here, worked hard to get citizenship, and sacrifice to dirty their hands to put food on the family would definitely be on my list. The value of education looking from the outside of the United States in, is incredible. Edith’s drive to succeed and become an ESL teacher was her dream and she chased it. Adrian’s dream of seeing that American flag waving 15 miles away from San Pedro and thinking to himself how nice it would be to live there. Turning sixteen years of age, he finally made it to America and never looked back, kept working hard, had kids, is now self-employed and now his wife and him are American citizens. In the beginning of this work I listed some names of some of the foreign born individuals that have made an impact in their respective communities and across the nation. Leo Manzano, Reyna Grande, Rita Moreno, Herman Badillo, and Isabel Allende were listed to name a few, but now Adrian Marquez and Edith Paredes fit the list quite well. Adrian Marquez, Edith Parades and millions of other Latinx families maintain their culture and roots from passing down their name to their own family, incorporating the religion brought on to them, and integrating language as much as they can throughout their household. They are changing the world, one generation at a time.