By Zach Neithercut
In a city mostly comprised of white and African American residents, a minority some citizens may miss is the Latinx or Hispanic community, who make up about 3.9 percent of the population, according to the 2010 census.
The March Tendaji Talk, presented by the organization Neighborhoods Without Borders at Longway Planetarium, attempted to bring attention to that sometimes overlooked community. It featured Asa Zuccaro, executive director of the Latinx Technology and Community Center at 2101 Lewis St. He is a Latinx person who grew up and still resides in Flint today.
Zuccaro shed light on the Latinx community, based on his family’s 100-year history in the city, and led a discussion on Latinx peoples in Flint, the services and aims of the center, and the country’s immigration debate.
The Center helps young members of the Latinx community on the east side of Flint, specifically offering access to the internet, computers and computer literacy, and including help for children who have been separated from their families. Zuccaro recalled growing up on the east side and never crossing Robert T. Longway Boulevard until he became a student at the University of Michigan-Flint, where he said he felt like he didn’t belong.
Zuccaro said his intention for the night was to have “a real relaxed conversation” and share new information to the attendees. The talk ranged over history—refreshers regarding the Alamo to the Mexican American War, to the differences between a textbook and what one hears outside of a book, to white privilege, to Zuccaro’s family’s experiences in Flint.
As Zuccaro began the talk proudly wearing a poncho, he stated the lens of his presentation was through the eyes of “Chicano/Chicana/Chicanx” – a term referring to the experience of growing up as a member of what he described as a “really, really diverse” community of Latinos in the United States.
One community member that Zuccaro’s organization has helped was the national bowling champion from her home country. She came to the United States and Flint for a “sense of security,” similar to what motivated Zuccaro’s own family, who legally immigrated during the Mexican Revolution to avoid violence.
Zuccaro’s family specifically chose Flint for the same reason many other families have in the past: Flint was booming. The family has now been in Flint for 100 years. Zuccaro’s mother and aunt attended Flint Central High School. Zuccaro’s grandfather worked for the City of Flint his whole life and, according to Zuccaro, was often not treated well along with other people of color. He said after the water crisis, his grandparents could not afford to pay their water bill and taxes and ended up losing their house.
Many other family members have been in jail and do not have a GED. Zuccaro, born in 1991, graduated in 2010 as the first graduating class from Genesee Early College, and provided his own 28-year perspective on Flint – a perspective, he suggested, of a time that differs greatly from his grandparents’ early days in Flint.
A week after walking across the stage with his college degree from the University of Michigan-Flint, Zuccaro moved to his home country of Mexico to better learn the language and culture. He said his family and peers expressed confusion about his decision, due to their perceived beliefs about poverty and cartels in Mexico. Zuccaro said his response was, “Well, we’re from Flint!”
Those beliefs, particularly about the dangers of life in Mexico, were “destroyed” once Zuccaro arrived, he said. He spent most of his time in Veracruz and described it simply as “paradise.” He said he had never seen buildings and culture with so much beauty. While in Mexico, Zuccaro also met his wife.
He and his wife later decided to return to Flint. Had Zuccaro and his wife attempted to return to the US today, Zuccaro said they would not be let in, despite Zuccaro having full U.S. citizenship. Initially not a fan of Flint, Zuccaro’s wife has grown to love it.
Currently unemployed, she is seeking her medical license and helps Zuccaro at the Latinx Center with the “highly educated, highly professional and highly skilled immigrant population… that have a lot to give to the community.” Zuccaro said those immigrants face many barriers, including language, cultural understanding, and getting recognition for their education.
Zuccaro explained kids have no tutor to assist them with the language barrier at school. He said a number of local immigrant teachers who could act as tutors are frustrated because they have been unable to obtain a license to teach, despite many having master’s degrees and prior teaching experience.
Attendees expressed some surprise when they realized that the ACT and SAT, two widely known standardized tests that high school students take, are only offered in English.
At one point, the word “value” came up in the discussion. Zuccaro emphasized the Latinx community is not seen to have value, even though there is plenty of it. With the Latinx population being just under four percent in Flint and three percent in the state, Zuccaro noted it is easy for people to not see the value of the Latinx population and marginalize the community.
In reviewing the country’s immigration debate, Zuccaro firmly stated the U.S. needs to help immigrants both here and in their home country. He admitted that he would rather live in Mexico than the United States. He thus shed light on the picture the U.S. often paints of immigration and on how a number of immigrants, and those born in the U.S. into a family of immigrants, like Zuccaro, and who want to be in their home country as opposed to the U.S, see things differently. One person in attendance suggested this was an example of “scamming”—how the U.S. gives false ideas or misconstrues certain situations in history– something, the participant suggested, it still does today.
Zuccaro encouraged attendees to come to the Chavez Huerta Luncheon Celebración scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. March 28 at the Northbank Center, 432 Saginaw St. in Flint, to learn more about the value of the local Latinx community. The luncheon will not feature Tex-Mex, he stressed, but true Latin American and Mexican foods.
Next month’s Tendaji Talk will feature the Native American community of Flint and will be held again at Longway Planetarium. Donna Ullrich, a representative of Neighborhoods Without Borders, said the group’s goal is to break down borders of the unknown which tend to inspire fear and hatred in others.
The Tendaji Talks, named to honor the late UM – Flint director of Educational Opportunity Initiatives Tendaji Ganges, aim to help Flint area residents learn about their diverse neighbors, local issues caused by racism, and the impact of racism on neighbors, as described at https://fpl.info/tendaji-talks/.
EVM Staff Writer Zach Neithercut can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.