Hispanic Heritage Month brings opportunity for understanding to Johnson City Hispanics and Latinos

Jonathan Roberts • Oct 6, 2019 at 3:37 PM

Settling into a table in the corner of Dos Gatos Coffee Bar in downtown Johnson City for Spanish and Portuguese Conversation Hours, Felipe Fiuza, a Brazillian native, feels quite at home in Johnson City.

“I think it’s a misconception to say we’re not in a diverse area,” Fiuza, director of the Language and Culture Resource Center at East Tennessee State University said. “Why is there a perception that there’s no diversity here? I think it’s a matter of how we actually look at people and how we portray ourselves.”

So how do you shift that perception in a city of more than 60,000? By making them feel welcomed, Fiuza says.

“It’s not a matter of (Hispanic Americans) not being here, it’s a matter of people not knowing that they are here,” he said. “Where you have a sense of belonging, when you have a sense of inclusiveness, then (diversity) is not an issue anymore, diversity is a byproduct of inclusion and equity when people are included and treated like equals then there is diversity.”

Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15 and ends on Oct. 15, provides an opportunity to shift those perceptions, though Fiuza knows the work doesn’t stop when next Tuesday ends.

“I think the Hispanic Heritage Month is important, but we can’t just compartmentalize things — we can’t just be one month. We’re not going to be included if we’re limited to one month, if we’re limited to one festival then you won’t feel welcome most of the time.”

For Diego Rodriguez, president of the Hispanic American Student Community Alliance at ETSU, Hispanic Heritage Month gives him and other Hispanics or Latinos an opportunity to bring light to the issues they face, not just in Johnson City or Tennessee, but on a national scale.

“I think it’s very important (to empower the Hispanic and Latino community), because we can’t be afraid,” Rodriguez said. “We live in fear of how (we bring attention to ourselves), like ‘What if we publicize this? Or, if this person is on (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), what’s the possibility (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will detain them and send them back?’

“These are legitimate questions, and legitimate problems,” he said. “But despite that, we have to understand that nothing is without risk — nothing worthwhile is without risk, and that if we truly believe for and wish for a better future, we have to get out of our comfort zone.”

And in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 20 dead after a gunman entered a Walmart targeting Hispanics and Latinos, and a 24% increase in hate crimes against Latinos from 2017-18, Rodriquez says he’s fearful, and afraid, but hopes Hispanic Heritage Month can, like Fiuza says, shift that perception.

“One of the takeaways should be that we’re just like (anyone else),” he said. “There’s not much that separates us, except that, of course, I’m a different skin tone,” Rodriguez said.

Fiuza though, doesn’t want people to think he’s a pessimist, applauding the “great things going on in this community,” but instead hoping that people can do the small things to make people different from them feel at home, whether that’s hanging up a sign that says “thank you” in a different language, or trying to understand the cultural differences between other nationalities.

“That small gesture could be enough for people to notice, and feel they’re welcome here,” Fiuza said. “I think there is diversity in our area, it’s just that we’re still working toward the inclusion, still working towards equity, and once we achieve that, then the diversity will show as well.”

And, in many respects, Fiuza is on the front lines of making that change happen, sitting in that same table in the back of Dos Gatos, engaging anyone and everyone in conversations about culture, music, coffee or just providing informal Spanish or Portuguese lessons to anyone who wants to learn.

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