Guest speaker kicks off National Hispanic Heritage Month with a dash of salsa

When the speaker entered the auditorium dancing to “Oye Como Va,” urging the audience to join her as she made her way to the front, it was clear this wasn’t going to be just any presentation.

Award-winning Latina author and activist Juana Bordas spoke to nearly 100 people on Tuesday evening at the launch of Virginia Commonwealth University’s first ever campuswide celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

“Leadership is an increasing priority for VCU,” said Renee Russell, communications manager in the VCU Global Education Office. “Juana Bordas is an expert on the topic of leadership and diversity, and we are thrilled to have her spearhead this celebration.

In a spirited, panoramic presentation that sought to inform, entertain and motivate, Bordas made the case that, far from being a threat, the Latino population in the United States is revitalizing American values and the American dream.

Framing her discussion with the theme of this year’s National Hispanic Heritage Month, “a legacy of history, a present of action and a future of success,” Bordas began her talk with a consideration of the past.

“Many people think that because of our growing immigration rate that Latinos are the new kid on the block, but that’s not really true,” she said. “We have a very long history of contributing to this country.”

Tracing the mestizo essence of Hispanic identity back to the melding of cultures in Spain since antiquity, Bordas stressed that the Spanish brought to the Americas a certain disposition to mix with others.

“The best example of this beautiful melding of cultures was Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared just 12 years after the Spanish came [to the New World],” Bordas said. “And she appeared not as a Spaniard, not as an Indian, but as a mestiza. And she would be the first multicultural woman of this hemisphere, signifying that this age would be coming, a time when there would be people from many cultures and many races coming together to form one people.”

Bordas sees this mixing today in everything from cuisine to pigment.

“Latinos are diversity,” she said. “We come in all colors.” And on the basis of the most recent census numbers, “Latinos are becoming more diverse in this country, rather than less.”

As the first part of her extended description of Hispanic culture as open and elastic, Bordas asserted, “Latinos are a culture, not a race. We’re a culture, and culture is learned.” What’s more, everyone is welcome to learn it.

Bordas told the audience that, until about 160 years ago, “one-third of the United States was traditionally Mexico or had Spanish roots.” A half-century before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, the Spanish arrived in Florida. And well before John Wayne, there was the charro.

“Latinos say, ‘We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.’”

The Mexican-American War made Mexicans minorities in their own land, Bordas said, which has had a long-term impact on the mentality of Hispanic leaders.

“Even today, Latino leadership has an activist flair because Latino leaders have always been representing and organizing people on the margins. Even today, 70 percent of Latinos are working-class.”

Bordas discreetly reminded the audience that Barack Obama’s use of “Yes, we can!” would not have been possible without Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s “Sí, se puede!” in 1972.

Moving to the present, Bordas finds plenty of evidence for the “Latinization of America.” Salsa has replaced ketchup as America’s favorite condiment; tortillas have replaced bread as the staff of American life; the margarita is our favorite drink; despite English-only laws in places, Spanish is gaining in popularity and visibility; Spanish-speaking rapper Pitbull has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone; and Pope Francis, an Argentinean, gives us “an example of many of the values that the [Hispanic] community holds dear.”

And then there’s the Chihuahua, top dog at America’s box office.

“Chihuahuas are a great metaphor for Latinos because they’re small but mighty,” Bordas said. “You know, they’ve got attitude!”

On a more serious note, Bordas said immigrants have made America great, and Latino immigrants “revitalize the cultural core.” To illustrate this idea, she told several stories; one of them was hers.

The youngest daughter in a family of eight, Bordas emigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua on a banana boat at the age of 3 and was the first in her family to attend college. After college, she joined the Peace Corps and worked in the barrios of Santiago, Chile, helping women form work cooperatives that enabled them to feed their families. Bordas later received the Peace Corps' Franklin H. Williams Award for her lifelong commitment to advancing communities of color.

Bordas shared a number of thoughts about Latino leadership, emphasizing the importance of collective community stewardship, inclusive leadership, social activism and coalitions.

“It’s never the individual leader; it’s always the collective that gets things done,” she said.

The future of Latinos, Bordas concluded, depends on their shared values, values that are also America’s values: a welcoming spirit, a global vision, a respect for roots and traditions, an immigrant spirit and a sense of generosity and community.

The evening ended with everyone singing “De Colores” (“[Made] Of Colors”), a song that Bordas considers the Hispanic national anthem, a song that she says invites others to “celebrate a diverse America.”

Bordas’ appearance was sponsored by the VCU Global Education Office, Division of Community Engagement, Division for Inclusive Excellence and Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, in collaboration with the Sacred Heart Center, a nonprofit community center that serves Richmond’s Hispanic community.  

“This event supports the VCU Quest for Distinction’s goal to provide all students with high-quality learning experiences focused on inquiry, discovery and innovation in a global environment,” GEO’s Russell said. “This universitywide celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity for VCU to join with the Richmond community in celebrating the contributions of Latino culture to preparing leaders for the multicultural 21st century.” 

The celebration of Hispanic heritage began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on Sept. 15 and ending on Oct. 15.


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Photos courtesy of VCU Global Education Office
Photos courtesy of VCU Global Education Office