Panel at Davidson Discusses Latino Issues
October 23, 2000
By Alexandra Obregon '00
On Wednesday, October 18, Davidson College hosted a panel discussion entitled "The Latino Presence in Charlotte: Building Bridges With Davidson." Moderated by Associate Professor of Spanish Magdalena Maiz-Peña, panelists discussed a number of important issues concerning the rapidly growing Latino community in the Charlotte-Mecklenbug area.
The forum is part of a month-long series of events sponsored by the college's Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) celebrating October as Hispanic History Month.
The event began with the introduction of the panelists by Fernando Valles, a Davidson sophomore from Venice, Fla., and current treasurer of OLAS. The panel participants were Tony Perez, a Davidson graduate from the class of '92 currently working in Bank of America's real estate division; Gina Esquivel, a Hispanic culture trainer with Programa Esperanza; Victor Guzman, president of the Center for Business and Language and the chair of the Annual Hispanic Festival of Charlotte; Stephanie Bevill, a registered ob/gyn nurse and ESL instructor; and Lindally Rajo, a social worker with Programa Confianza.
Maiz-Peña opened the discussion with the question: "How is the rapid increase in the Latino population affecting what you do?"
Rajo replied that she was specifically hired because her bilingual abilities would allow her to work with Latino women. The growth of the Hispanic population has made social service agencies like hers recognize the needs of the population, and these organizations are doing what they can to accommodate those needs, she noted.
Guzman offered a business perspective, saying that the exponential growth of the numbers of Latinos recently--200-300% increases each year--has left the business sector scrambling to find out who makes up this population, and how they can be involved in businesses in the community.
"Bilingualism is a hot commodity," Guzman said. "Businesses want to hire people who can communicate with this new segment of the population."
Bevill, offering the perspective of medical services, said that few hospitals previously offered bilingual services in any language. However, the growing Latino presence has served to raise awareness about other cultures in general--something that benefits all minorities and international groups.
Perez pointed out that the growth in Charlotte is only one example of a national trend, and that students would do well to learn about Latino culture to open doors in terms of knowledge and employment.
The panel also discussed problems caused by this sudden surge in the Hispanic population, including poor intercultural communication and the prevalence of stereotypes. The panelists agreed that education is the key to overcoming these obstacles, and urged students to support movements to raise cultural awareness.
"Charlotte doesn't just have two faces," Esquivel stated. "We are sharing our growth with other cultures."
Once the discussion was opened up to questions from the audience, senior student Marie Sharp, current president of OLAS, asked about the significance of the different terms used to refer to Latinos, and whether some are more appropriate than others.
Perez answered responded by relating his own struggles in raising his daughter and teaching her about her heritage. Raised in New York, Perez is of Puerto Rican descent and prefers being referred to as a Puerto Rican. Other panelists pointed out that the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" are often misleading, because they gloss over the diversity of the population. With twenty-nine different countries making up Latin America, most people prefer to point out their specific nationality. Perez urged the audience to "take the extra step to ask the question, 'Where are you from?'"
One questioner asked for examples of the diversity within the Latino culture. Esquivel pointed out that the Spanish language changes from country to country and region to region. Words or phrases that may be okay to say in one place may be considered expletives somewhere else, she said.
Another question dealt with the public school system in Mecklenburg County, and what was being done to help students in transition from Spanish to English.
Bevill replied, "Children are sponges for language."
Problems arise, however, when non-Spanish teachers cannot communicate with parents. She pointed out that schools should take steps to train teachers and/or hire bilingual teachers. Schools also need to train principals and guidance counselors not only in language, but culture. "Knowing the language doesn't mean you understand the culture," she emphasized.
Maiz-Peña concluded by asking the panelists to advise students on how they can get involved with the Hispanic community. Panelists urged students to volunteer, and take advantage of the opportunities to learn bilingual and bicultural skills.
Bevill said that even if students cannot volunteer their time, they should try to learn more about the culture: "If you make yourself aware, you can stop discrimination and help educate others," she said.
Guzman discussed the importance of political awareness, pointing out the involvement of Latinos in the presidential election and the use of Spanish in both the Bush and Gore campaigns.
"They are coming to us, and we need to take advantage of that," he said.
Esquivel said talking about Latino issues is only part of a larger discussion about the need for all cultures to understand each other, and Perez encouraged minority students at Davidson to take advantage of the opportunities the college affords them to learn about other cultures.
Maiz-Peña closed the forum by thanking the panelists for their participation and acknowledging that "our bridge to cultural understanding goes both ways."