For years, I have been a bridge between many groups. I do this, but I don’t have any special skills other than objectivity and the willingness to listen. Many times, I succeed only in getting everybody angry and making myself a target for flak from all sides. My bridge-building started when I would negotiate with the American world on behalf of my dear old grandmother, who was born on her father’s ranch in south Texas in 1884 and never learned to speak a word of English.
For her, south Texas was still the province of New Spain that her ancestors had founded. The Spanish Mexicans called it Nuevo Santander. When Mexico gained independence from Spain, it was called Tamaulipas. Things changed, of course. My father went off to war in 1942 and quickly became assimilated into U.S. society. My mother could not transition so easily. She spoke English some of the time, but I had to interpret the cultural ways of the Anglo world for her.
My old folks are gone now, but I’m still happily interpreting for many people. There is still the gap between the American Anglo world and the Mexican, Chicano, Latino world.
When I worked for the City of Colorado Springs Human Relations Commission (HRC), I conducted sessions in intercultural communications.
I would say to my majority Anglo audiences, “I will tell you everything about the Mexican world if you tell me everything about the Anglo world.” That’s impossible, of course. The point was that my perspective was only one perspective, and that learning how to communicate in multicultural America is a lesson with many teachers. And it works both ways: you learn the dominant culture and you learn the other cultures.
That’s the ideal, but it rarely works that way because the dominant Anglo culture is so powerful that it becomes the sole de facto channel of communication. And that was the main problem in that kind of bridge-building.
With the HRC, I also mediated disputes among citizens and between citizens and local government. I often mediated cases of conflict between citizens and the police. That took some kind of bridge-building. Sometimes the other staff and I were successful in police/community mediation. Other times we were not.
But at least in the 1970s and ’80s, we were advanced enough to have this Intercultural Communications and Mediation Service. It made for a more peaceful community. But we are not so advanced now.
I don’t like extremes of the political right and the political left. In spite of that, there I go, trying to build bridges between the political extremes of our bitterly divided country.
Attitudes have hardened so much that I am going to give up on that kind of bridge-building. This is unfortunate because no one side has all the solutions to the many challenges confronting us. If we could just talk, we would find that good solutions derive from conservatives and liberals.
I’m always trying to bridge the gap between the political parties and the Chicanos.
Recently, a Democratic politician asked me how to reach out to Colorado Latinos. I felt dismay at his belated realization of the need to do this. I said to him, “Don’t fall into the Latino trap, the huge category that fails to define the uniqueness of the many groups it includes. If you want to effectively communicate with us here in Colorado, then get to know us. Mexican-origin people eligible to vote have been here for hundreds of years. We are not immigrants.”
The suggestion of Democratic ignorance seemed to shock him. On the other side, Republicans have flaunted in my face their serious inroads into the Hispanic community, especially in south Texas. I tell them, “You have attracted mostly light-skinned Mexican Americans, people who pass for white. Let’s see how you do with the dark, brown-skinned masses.” The suggestion of Republican racism seemed to shock them.
But enough. Like I said, I don’t think that I will do more bridge-building.
The political kind, anyway.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS. He teaches Mexico/U.S. Border Studies and U.S. Military History.