Diversity is always a positive experience only if it is accompanied with respect, understanding, gratitude, and hope. It is not a surprise to any of us that the United States has become a highly multicultural and ethnically diverse country. As a nation, America has embraced, through the years, peoples of different languages, ethnicities, colors, and cultures. This warm attitude has made this nation one of the most plural and welcoming civilizations on the face of the earth. The trait is only possible because of the faith journey on which our Founding Fathers established the foundations of this land of freedom.
The relationship and influence of the Hispanic culture in the U.S. has a history that dates back to the late 1800s in which the first immigrants began to arrive in search of better opportunities and quality of life. This interesting association has extended its influence to the arts, sports, religion, gastronomy, education, linguistics, and economics. In reality, as the overflow of immigration began to arrive, one thing became clear – many immigrants are here because their home countries have forsaken them and are failing to serve the needs of their own people. Instead, many Latin American governments have sided with continuous habits of political corruption, rampant violence, social intolerance, systematic violation of human rights, and chaotic economic administration. It came to the point in which the only hope of survival for many Latinos was to “look for the American dream” – a dream which many have accomplished through hard work, education, responsible family relationships, and love for this country.
However, I must acknowledge there have also been contrasting stories that on many occasions have made us question the social implications and ramifications of our relationships. Safety, legality, respect, and willingness to serve are topics that we must also teach to our immigrant communities and especially to the second generation of Hispanics who have the privilege to call themselves American by birth.
As a Hispanic and an American citizen, I still believe it’s possible to accomplish unity in the midst of our diversity. Let me share what I’m saying with a practical and personal example.
I remember coming to America for the first time in 1995 to attend college in Cleveland, TN. I had just turned 18 and left my country of Peru with big dreams and high hopes. My parents sent me to America under a student visa and advised me to study hard, mature (something I must be honest to say I had not done much while living at home), and learn as much as possible. Once I got to Tennessee, I found myself not being able to speak much English and having to work washing dishes in the university cafeteria to pay for personal expenses.
One Saturday, at the beginning of the college year, I found myself needing a haircut. I decided to wander around the neighborhood trying to find a haircut place. After several minutes of walking, I came across an old haircut shop called Joe’s. I decided to walk in and to my surprise the place was packed with older white gentlemen. When they saw me coming in, I could feel by the way they looked at me they had not seen a young brown Peruvian before.
Joe was the owner of the place, a white male in his early sixties. He looked at me and asked, “young man, can I help you?” In my broken English I tried to explain to him what I wanted, and it seemed he understood well because he did an excellent job. That first day he did not say much and neither did I. But for the next four years, I kept coming for my regular haircut and got to know Joe well. He introduced to me others– Larry, Mark, Glenn, Bob, Rich, and many other hard working white men who helped me improve my “southern” English and showed me to love the southern culture.
Likewise, I taught them two of the most valuable words we Latinos can say to anyone: “amigo” (friend) and “familia” (family). In reality this group of men became my amigos and were the only familia I had for four years while in college. I exposed them to our salsa and merengue music, contagious rhythms that we Latinos enjoy as part of our culture, as well as to some of our Hispanic food. They took me to their homes and shared with me their special celebrations, their home-made food, but most importantly, they offered me their friendship. Our relationship was such that we were able to overcome all cultural, racial, and even language barriers.
I will never forget the day of my college graduation, I went early on a Saturday morning to get my regular haircut to make sure I looked good for the commencement ceremony. There they were–my amigos were waiting on me with a most delicious breakfast. After eating together, they all surprised me with an envelope with a generous monetary gift to start my new life in Chicago were I went to pursue my post-graduate education. Over the years, I kept in touch with some of them but later I learned they all passed away.
A few months ago, after twenty-two years of this beautiful experience, I took my wife and four children to Cleveland and showed them where Joe’s used to be. I told my family that the best example I learned of unity in the midst of diversity did not come from a college classroom, a political speech, even a church pulpit, instead, it came from generous values I found in simple but sincere older white men.
As a Pastor and a community servant to many Hispanics in Gainesville, Ga., my prayer and hope during these times of controversial discussions is to become a bridge builder to a better community, to a new Hispanic generation with Christian principles, and to help in building a greater and safer nation for our children. As I said in the beginning, unity in the midst of diversity is only possible through respect, understanding, gratitude, and hope – values that only come from a heart in which the Great Commandment “to love God, your neighbor and yourself” has found real meaning.
Javier Chavez is the Lead Pastor of Amistad Cristiana International, the 2nd Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention and Visiting Professor of Missions at Truett McConnell University.Return to Blog Archive