These last few months I have questioned my identity. Despite frustrations, I had never before doubted my place in America. But last fall I started to. And so I did what grounds me more than anything and made the most sense at this time: I took a short break from Centro Hispano, where I have been executive director for the past three years, to regain my perspective. I returned to my native El Salvador for a weeklong visit to spend time with cousins and aunts who were my foundation growing up. It was the first time my daughters spent time with relatives in El Salvador and the third trip for my husband, who is originally from Green Bay.
Spending time in El Salvador reminded me that my identity transcends the United States. As an immigrant there is an "other" place where we belong, where all understand the common thread that binds us, our challenges, our history.
The last time I left El Salvador I was a teenager, old enough to remember where I came from but not mature enough to understand what we were leaving behind and the deep loss I would continue to always feel. Going back now, given the current U.S. political climate, it seems so much easier to fit in there than here, despite 30-plus years as an American.
It has taken months since the election to recover a sense of hope in my spirit, to work through the resentment about all the divisiveness and discrimination against Latinos. My parents gave up their entire lives for me to have a future in the United States. Our journey was no different from that of so many other immigrants — not necessarily a choice that was perfectly timed. But in the end the result added value to this country, because we contributed, we added our voice, and we helped to grow this place we came to love.
Time and time again we have been asked at Centro Hispano for our statement in regard to the recent executive orders, the recent political climate, the future outlook for our community, etc., etc. Up until now I didn’t have the strength to put pen to paper. Now I am here to say that the community we serve knows our stance: The families we work with and our youth know exactly where we stand, and that’s our priority. If you don’t know where we stand then I challenge you to get involved and learn from our staff about our deep commitment to our Latino community. Instead of expecting a statement from me, I challenge you to make YOUR statement through your involvement, by speaking up for your moral values when you feel disillusioned, disrespected, as Americans.
Let communities of color continue to lead, but please, if you believe in this fight, the time is NOW to make YOUR presence known and join us in this journey.
Know that at Centro our stance will always be the same regardless of the political climate. Centro plans to remain a loyal, consistent, and permanent home for our community as they fight through any struggle. We are a much-needed safe space, where Latinos can make connections and gain knowledge, a hub for collaboration and planning, for learning how to support one another. But most importantly we are committed to creating programs and services that will undoubtedly strengthen our neighborhoods and communities and will help us weather any storm that may come our way.
While my hope is Wisconsin will one day broaden its understanding of Latinos, that one day the area’s perspective will change to encompass all communities of color — black, Muslim, and Latinos alike — I have never been one to wait for systems to change.
Our work at Centro will continue to remain the priority, and from me you should know that I will NOT let our community down — communities that cling to faded pictures and letters from long-distant relatives, and remain connected to their beloved homelands through memories that stand the test of time. I will not let our community down as long as I am an American in this country.
We clearly make our statement every day through the work that we do. How about you?
Karen Menéndez Coller is executive director of Centro Hispano of Dane County.
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