Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 3.10.11

Stand Alone, Stand Together
Immigrants make America a better place
By Jorge Navarro

Living in the U.S. today is a paradox and a contradiction. It makes even the simplest of decisions an amazingly complex exercise. For instance, the Feds (and almost everyone else we know) recommend that we exercise and eat healthily by consuming less fat and eating more fruits and vegetables. Sane, reasonable advice. But wait! This is America. You cant tell us what to do! If a business or a corporation wants to sell us one of those double-decker, bacon-wrapped, blue cheese-stuffed, 1,400-calorie monsters made with food products shipped in from everywhere but here ã all for $4.99 ã who are we to complain? Theyre not in business to keep us healthy! Theyre in business to make money! Welcome to the land of the rugged individualist. you’re on your own.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had with a Latina friend. I asked her, “Whats the difference between Latinos and Norte Americanos?” Without skipping a beat, she said: “Americans are individualistic, materialistic and democratic. Mexicans are family-oriented, community-centered and autocratic.” As a general brush stroke, I thought her response was in the ballpark. “Family-oriented, community-centered and autocratic”? Hmm Ä How does that translate into this American life? I decided to ask two immigrant friends of mine about how they see themselves and the work they do in this community.

Basilio Sandoval is 44 years young, with a wife and two sons. He came to Oregon when he was 16. His family history is steeped in agriculture. He sees himself as being hardworking, responsible and skilled. The High School Equivalency Program (HEP) based at UO was a turning point for him. It was there he met his wife, got his GED, and met others, like himself, who were dedicated and committed to the greater good of the community. He went to work at Centro Latino Americano, where he honed more skills. Currently he is their certified alcohol and drug counselor and a certified suicide prevention specialist; he mentors Latino youth for St. Vincent de Paul, and he and his family work as members of an organic farm cooperative. Basilio reports that dreaming is what he BRING’s to the table.

Raul de la O is around 50 years old, in relationship, with two children. He arrived in Eugene in 1975. In the early 1980s he discovered the HEP program, got his GED, and learned to give back. It was there that he recognized himself in the faces of the others around him, learned the importance of education, and got connected.

He has worked at Chicano Affairs with Ruben Cota. He has worked at LCC in Community Services. He has immersed himself in Latin American Studies at the UO. He has taught community members how to build computers. He has taught English as a second language and is currently a certified gambling addictions counselor at Emergence, and is in the process of earning his certification as and drug and alcohol counselor. I asked him, “Why are you so interested in addictions counseling?” His response was clear and concise: “I understand how substance abuse has negatively impacted my life. I see how addictions continue to negatively impact my community. I want to give back to my community and make it a better place.” Raul sees himself as a man of faith, doing his best to model what he preaches. He believes that he can be an agent of positive change.

These two men tell amazing stories of faith in themselves and in the importance and power of community and family. Their contributions are more than rhetorical. They have made this a better place for all of us.

It is not easy being an immigrant. Overcoming prejudice and discrimination is difficult. Social scientists refer to certain cultural characteristics as “protective factors,” and in the case of Latino immigrants, such factors are the importance of family and community. These allow Latino immigrants to overcome what otherwise would be devastating circumstances. Americas obsession with the individual and materialism undermines these protective factors. Heres the proof: Research indicates that the longer an immigrant lives in the U.S., the more his or her health and mental health conditions deteriorate. It appears that living in America these days isnt easy for anyone ã other than the very wealthy. Infant mortality, suicide, obesity, poverty, and depression and anxiety rates are all accelerating.

How about this? We need each other! Latin Americas cultural and social history of being dominated by despots, tyrants and the dogmas of the absolute is well documented. The democratic ideals of justice and fairness are the promised gifts of America. The optimism and faith in hard work and family voiced by Basilio and Raul are the gifts of the immigrant. The protective factors of being beholden to family and community, of the individual being accountable to the whole, of the good of all being more important than the greed of a few are the solutions for what ails us all. A new American Dream based on equality, justice, fairness, and human rights. What an idea. Im ready!

Jorge Navarro, raised in Los Angeles, is a first-generation Mexican American. He has worked with the Latino community for more than 40 years, and has served on the boards of many local community organizations. He is currently working as co-director of programs and development for Community Alliance of Lane County.