The sights and sounds of Mexican culture and traditions filled the air on a recent Saturday in Springfield.

Hundreds of people attended the fourth annual Noche Cultural, a community celebration of Mexican history, traditions and folklore. It provided a comfortable setting for Latinos to connect with their culture. For non-Latinos, it offered a window into part of that culture.

Nine percent of Lane County residents are Latino, compared with 13 percent statewide, according U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

But how much do Oregonians, particularly those of us in Lane County, recognize the contributions of Latinos as part of our community? People of all cultures and backgrounds should feel that they belong, that they have a civic voice and that they need not worry about expressing their culture in public.

“I think this is a critical question for people in Oregon,” said University of Oregon professor Gerardo Sandoval, who led the Latino Participatory Research Project that was completed in Lane County in 2013. “I think Eugene is really trying. I think most people appreciate diversity. With that being said, there’s also a lot of negativity.”

Lack of cultural awareness contributes to unintentional misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts. Sandoval was part of Eugene’s initiative to make its city parks more welcoming to Latinos. For example, the Latino culture is one of informality, not pre-planning. Conflicts sometimes arose when others had reserved a park space but Latinos were using it for a pickup soccer game. The city came up with a variety of solutions.

We are faced with a critical time for building that community understanding. The inflamed national debate over immigration has helped spread the falsehood that being Latino, or speaking Spanish, equates to being in the U.S. illegally.

The reality is that about two-thirds of Latino Oregonians were born in the U.S. Many foreign-born residents have become U.S. citizens or otherwise have legal residency. In fact, most new Oregonians are non-Hispanic whites who came from other states. International migrants are more likely to have arrived from Asia, not Mexico or Central America.

Neither is the Latino population homogenous, so it would be wrong to automatically assume someone is of Mexican heritage or a Spanish-speaker. Some Latinos are first- or second-generation Oregonians, whereas others trace their Oregon roots back a century or longer.

Latinos play a vital role in Oregon’s economy. The modern agricultural industry could not subsist without them. The timber industry, already beleaguered, would be crippled as well. Latinos serve in every sector of the economy, as school superintendents and sheriffs, college professors and county commissioners, physicians and photojournalists, and more.

Sadly, most local students will learn little of those contributions unless they attend one of the Spanish-immersion schools or have a teacher who is both knowledgeable and passionate about the issues. Consequently, Latino students are deprived of learning about their historic and contemporary cultural roles, and non-Latinos are deprived of education about a large segment of their community.

A significant problem is our schools struggle to recruit and retain educators of color, including Latinos. As a result, Latino students often have no teacher — no counselor, or principal or other adult role model in education — with whom they can culturally identify. White students in Lane County rarely encounter that impediment.

Change is coming, forced by the state. The wide-ranging Oregon Student Success Act passed by the 2019 Legislature has provisions to better serve Latino and Hispanic students, which it defines as “including individuals of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, South American, Central American or Spanish descent.”

Related legislation calls for history, geography, economics and civics curricula to include sufficient instruction on the “histories, contributions and perspectives of individuals” of Latinos, Hispanics and others.

We hope local school officials will not wait for the money and mandates to arrive from Salem. Go beyond what already is being done. Go to Latino parents, students and businesspeople. Hear their voices and listen to their ideas.

The community must back these efforts. Teachers need training and materials for how to include perspectives beyond their own. They need opportunities to practice implementing new curricula and how to recognize and honor cultural differences within their school.

We all have a role. Regardless of our own background and culture, we all have much to learn about others.

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