By Christopher O’Neill
Hundreds congregated at DCCC’s Marple campus auditorium at 9 a.m., Friday, Apr. 7, 2017 to attend the third annual Latinos and education conference titled, “Beyond Multiculturalism: Empowering Latino Students and the Community.” The event was hosted by the Latino Initiatives and Outreach Network (LION), the Institutional Diversity Committee (IDC), and the Latin Flavor Club. The conference is held every year to raise awareness and help address the multifaceted issues Latinos face.
This year’s conference was moderated by Assistant Professor of English Fernando Benavidez, Assistant Professor of English Elizabeth Gray, Assistant Director of Dual Enrollment and High School Initiatives Sandy Cos, and featured keynote speaker Dr. Javier Ávila, an award winning poet, and 2015 Pennsylvania Professor of the Year. Subsequent panels focused on the perspectives of Latino students and their experiences in college, as well as undocumented “Dreamers” (The term Dreamers refers to the proposed DREAM Act, which offers legal status to undocumented minors in return for military service or participation in higher education) in higher education.
“We’re an open door institution,…a people’s college,” said DCCC president Dr. Jerry Parker in his opening remarks for the conference. “The mission really is all about the inclusiveness and diversity of multiculturalism.”
Parker added that DCCC had a 20 percent increase in Latinos present in the student body as of last fall, and that they were a welcome addition to the school’s community. He also addressed the Latino high school students in attendance from schools such as Great Valley, Kennett Square, Upper Darby, as well as several from the West Chester Area School District, encouraging them to enroll at DCCC. “We hope that this population will continue to grow and grow,” Parker said.
The crowd showed their enthusiasm with a vigorous round of applause as Parker relinquished the stage to Benavidez at 9:15 a.m., signifying the beginning of the first panel.
“Morning, bienvenidos, buenos días,” Benavidez said, greeting the crowd in both Spanish and English. Benavidez introduced himself, and added that he was very honored by the support of all those present.
“Recently, today’s keynote speaker performed his wildly popular one man show titled, ‘The trouble with my name,’” Benavidez said.
As the lights dimmed, the crowd focused their attention on the screen behind Benavidez depicting clips from Ávila’s performance. The crowd laughed as he recanted a conversation he’d had with a staff person while waiting in line at a tennis club. “I thought, ‘how nice of her to teach me the proper pronunciation of my name.’”
After the brief clip, Benavidez returned to the stage and introduced Ávila as, “…the first Latino to receive the Pennsylvania Professor of the Year Award.” The crowd greeted Ávila with a healthy round of applause as he took the stage and explained he was going to recite a poem from his book, “The trouble with my name,” titled, “Bloodline.”
Ávila explained that while reading this poem at his performances, he liked to show a family picture of his son, Oscar, with his four great grandmothers depicting what a multicultural family looks like. “It tells the story of how we are all immigrants,” Ávila said. “Because that is what America is all about.”
Ávila mentioned that the purpose of his performances was to leave a legacy for his son and future generations that celebrated the multicultural diversity of American families.
Following the poem, Benavidez rejoined Ávila on stage as they prepared for the discussion portion of the panel. Benavidez asked Ávila what it was like growing up in Puerto Rico before moving to the United States and how that may have influenced the creation of poems such as “Bloodline.”
“When you look like this… in Puerto Rico, you believe you are white,” Ávila said. “About 93 percent of Puerto Ricans on the island believe they are white until they come to the mainland.”
Ávila explained that it was his wife who urged him to share his experience of being what was considered the majority in Puerto Rico, to being a minority in the United States. “The reason I wrote that poem, and the reason for the show is I married a white woman and I have a ‘white-tino’ child,” Ávila told the audience, who chuckled.
Benavidez and Ávila continued to read and discuss select poems from the book addressing topics such as maintaining one’s heritage and encouraging people to teach not only English to their children, but the language of their ancestors as well.
“Speaking multiple languages is a good thing,” Ávila said.
Benavidez asked Ávila what he thought about the current political climate concerning immigrants in the United States and whether he thought it was better or worse. Citing life examples such as being allowed to vote for the first time in Puerto Rico when he was in his thirties, Ávila said that he felt hopeful and optimistic about positive change being on the horizon.
“I want the show and the work that I do…to provide hope for people,” Ávila said, adding that as long as people had hope and could avoid a “learned helplessness,” mindset, that they could succeed.
At nearly 10:30, the second panel, moderated by Sandy Cos, assistant director of Dual Enrollment and High School Initiatives, featured Latino DCCC students. Panelists included Latin Flavor Club founding members Jarely Becerra Roberts and Katherine Cartegena, as well as students Rodrigo Campos, a liberal arts major, and Alejandra Ortega, a science for health professionals major.
The second panel progressed predominantly in Spanish, as students addressed the prospective Latino college students in the audience and shared their own personal experiences. All the panelists recited the typical difficulties a college student usually encounters, such as time management between work and school and the financial stresses associated with living costs and tuition.
Adding to these typical stresses however, was the fact that the students realized that the reason they were attending college in the United States, was because their parents wanted them to have a better opportunity then they had received. Students on the second panel mentioned that they did not want to squander the opportunity that their parents had striven for, regardless of the fact that there were cultural and language barriers to overcome.
“It was not an easy journey,” Cartegena said. “Like all the other students the difference of the language and the culture is a challenge that makes you humble and resilient to obstacles. I feel blessed to have had the experiences I had, and to have been in DCCC, because it helped me to grow not just as a person but also as a leader.” At the completion of the second panel, visiting high school students were then prompted to regroup and take a tour of the DCCC campus.
After a brief five-minute intermission, audience members returned to their seats for the third and final panel at 11:15 a.m.
Panelists of the third panel included Cos; Dr. Iliana Pagán,- Teitelbaum, associate professor of Spanish and Latin American Film at West Chester University; Steven Larín, esq., senior director of Legal Services & Immigration Policy at the Nationalities Service Center; Dr. Abel Rodríguez, esq., assistant professor of Religious Studies at Cabrini College; and Dr. David R. Hurtado, dean of Administration & Program Development at Esperanza College of Eastern University.
Gray introduced the panel itself, but allowed the panelists to make their own formal introductions. After brief introductions were made, Hurtado gave a presentation on what undocumented immigrants should be aware of.
“Know your rights,” Hurtado said. “The key thing here to remember is you have the right to remain silent.” Hurtado also recommended that undocumented immigrants always carry “know your rights” cards which they could obtain through the Esperanza website. He also urged them to enlist an attorney’s help and that there would be a space for their name right on the card to make them easy to present to ICE agents or police officers if the need arose.
Hurtado mentioned that one of the most important things an undocumented immigrant should do is to have a backup plan, especially if they have children who rely on their care.
Rodríguez and Larín also fielded questions concerning what the future held for Dreamers and how undocumented immigrants should handle the DACA form (deferred action for childhood arrivals, an application that grants certain eligible immigrants who arrived as children the opportunity to obtain legal documents such as driver’s licenses and work papers), but all questions were met with almost the same answer.
“It all depends on the background of the individual client,” Larín said. Larín then explained that there was no clear line to follow when it came to these issues which was why it was so important that people become familiar with their rights and to have a plan.
Next the topic shifted to how to better promote awareness and develop a more comprehensive network among schools and educators. One audience member mentioned a new phone application, DACA Scholars, which provides information on financial aid for undocumented students.
When Gray prompted panelists for closing remarks, Hurtado urged people to prepare themselves not just by devising a plan for their own families, but by reaching out and supporting others as well to strengthen the networks that were already in place. “There are people out there who are willing to help you,” Hurtado said. “Keep pressing on.”
After the panel presentations, guests were treated to lunch provided by Carmen Lytle Catering and Oscar Pizza, owned by Oscar Amaya Piñeda, both of which are Latino businesses, Benavidez said in an email.
Benavidez also said that this year’s turnout had been higher than last years. “Overall, the headcount was about between 300-350 people,” he wrote in the same email. “This was truly a ‘community event.’”
Benavidez explained that the conference was meant to be a meeting place where the community could cultivate relationships and dialogue on serving the Latino community through higher education.
“I think that when non-Latino students discover that they share common struggles with Latino students, this creates a sense of empathy and understanding across cultures, which can be very powerful,” he added.
Contact Christopher O’Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org