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Central Standard

'La Raza' Through The Eyes Of Kansas City Latinos

Peggy Lowe

The National Council of La Razais holding its annual conference in Kansas City. The series of events brings together advocates, business leaders, politicians and others around issues of importance to Hispanic populations throughout the United States.

But the organization's name, La Raza, gives some people pause. 

Translated imperfectly, it means 'the race', but as Enrique Chi of the Kansas City band Making Movies explained on Central Standard, "The race is not a great translation of it because that's not the way the word really resonates with Latino people, especially Latino people in the United States. I think it's more like saying, 'our tribe.'"

"There is no literal translation," says Celia Ruiz of Una Lucha KC. "Raza, I take it as my people."

Daniel Silva of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce used to work for the National Council of La Raza and he says the group took its name from a popular poem, which refers to the Hispanic people as la raza cosmica, or the cosmic race.

He says the cosmic piece of it is important because it "speaks to the diversity of the Latino population."

Some Latinos speak Spanish; others don't. Some Latinos in the United States were born here; others immigrated. Skin color and hair color run the entire gamut. Countries of origin span a huge geographic area, and within that geographic area is an incredible range of cultural traditions.

Which makes Latino identity, and a sense of belonging in la raza, a fluid and complex experience. 

In the course of an hour-long discussion, three young Kansas City Latinos shared personal perspectives on how they see themselves, and how they are seen by others.

Interview highlights:

On belonging:

I actually feel more at home with immigrants that I do with Panamanians, or Americans really. ... It dawned on me when I was 12 years old and I was right in the peak of pimples and hormones and I hated my identity here, I hated being the weird one ... when I went back to Panama, in my head [I thought], 'I can't wait to be home with my people where I'm Panamanian and I'm not the weird one.' I got to Panama and my cousins and my friends and everyone were like, Hey GringoThis is my American cousin... I've realized that that is my identity and it's cool that I can navigate both cultures... but really I identify the most with people that have had to straddle two cultures. - Enrique Chi

I still try to figure out, where am I supposed to fit? Because there's a constant push and pull of, OK, I look brown, I speak Spanish, but I also speak English. You say you're Mexican, but aren't you born here? Or if I say I'm American, No, but where's your family from? - Celia Ruiz

There's actually a saying in Spanish that I learned a long time ago. Ni aqui ni alla. Neither from here nor over there. By my makeup, my father's from Mexico and my mother's from Guatemala. I was born and raised in Chicago in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. ... Whenever I've traveled to Mexico or Guatemala... my Spanish doesn't really reflect a Central American Spanish, Guatemalan Spanish or a Mexican Spanish... it's more of a mash-up... so I like to say I can speak all three kinds of Spanish... Maybe all of us have learned to be a chameleon in some sense. - Daniel Silva

On categorization and inclusion:

Engaging under-served communities and communities of color is the right thing to do, but then the business case is that it's also the economically viable thing to do. Being categorized at times is tough, being invisible at times is always tough. At the Chamber and from where I sit, any opportunity to uplift our community should be acted upon. - Daniel Silva

We are being categorized into these two groups because of money. It's sad to say and my heart is running like crazy because we don't talk about these things a lot, but ... for someone here, my blood doesn't matter. Skin tone matters. Because that way they can say they helped a certain percentage of blank. - Celia Ruiz

You know, I don't think we can make everyone love the Hispanic communities, but if we get their support because it makes sense, fine. Let's take it. It's like with our band, sometimes we get an opportunity because someone loves us, and that's really special. Sometimes we get an opportunity because it just makes sense, business-wise. And you know what? How can I say no to that? Enrique Chi

Once we're given a place to speak or a place to be seen, it's our responsibility to be absolutely honest with ourselves. And so then if it's, you want a Latino? Let me show you what a Latino is like. Let me show you what I look like. Celia Ruiz

On Kansas City: 

Here, the neighborhoods are drawn in big black lines. This neighborhood is for black people, this neighborhood is for brown people, this neighborhood is for white people. And it's kind of disappointing, honestly. ... and I use those terms to be kind of crass about it, that it's just not OK anymore. It feels crass to me that there's distinct lines. - Enrique Chi

When we were younger we were driving by the Plaza and I remember being told that's for white people. So did I have the opportunity to say Celia if you want to go in there go ahead, go get lost in that store? That didn't happen.  - Celia Ruiz

What I would really like to see is for us as a collective people to really flex our muscle if you will. Unite, rally, get more Latinos elected into office, position Latinos to be in positions of power and influence ... which is tough, I think, when you start to think about the spectrum of Latinos here in Kansas City, whether they're newly arrived immigrants or 3rd, 4th, 5th-generation immigrants. Those folks don't always see eye to eye, or even know each other. - Daniel Silva

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People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.