"Education is the great equalizer of the conditions of man." — Horace Mann
Wherever I go in Fresno, I observe the same phenomena. Whether it's a trip to River Park or the Sierra Vista Mall, the movies, a sporting event, a church gathering, or one of the many quality restaurants in our community, I see variety. I recognize a richness of diversity reflected by race, language and religious attire, a vibrant interfuse of cultures that appear to be prosperous, to be living the American Dream. This seems increasingly evident among our Latino population.
While the terms Hispanic and Latino often overlap and are used interchangeably, there is a significant difference.
Hispanic is a term that historically suggested a relationship to the Iberian Peninsula, specifically Spain. Latino refers to persons or communities of Latin America, whether Hispanic or not. For example, Brazilians are Latinos who are not Hispanic, since Brazil was colonized by Portugal.
National Hispanic Heritage Month began on Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 15. Those dates were selected because five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua all celebrate their independence on Sept. 15, followed by Mexico, Chile and Belize, which honor theirs on Sept. 16. To Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the 16th marks "El Grito de Dolores," when, in 1810, Father Hidalgo y Castillo called the poorest of the poor in the village of Dolores to revolution against Spain.
(Cinco de Mayo, a far more famous Mexican festival, commemorates the Mexican Army's victory over France at the battle of Puebla in 1862 during the Franco-Mexican War.)
Concurrent with the observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month, PBS has just concluded a six-hour documentary, "Latino Americans."
This outstanding feature highlighted the Latino experience in North America all the way back to the conquest of Mexico by Spain in 1519, the eventual influx of Mexicans into California and Texas centuries before Americans arrived, and the story of Cesar Chavez here in the Central Valley 50 years ago. This documentary is now available as an on-demand video or online streaming.
For decades — even centuries — Latino Americans were all but invisible to most Americans. They worked in the fields and picked our food, took care of our lawns and cleaned our houses, all the while living in segregated communities, even in the smaller towns surrounding Fresno. Most of them were poor, uneducated, and could only dream of joining mainstream America.
Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet, writer and diplomat and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990, told his people that dreaming was not enough.
"Deserve your dream," became his most famous admonition, a message to all of Mexican heritage, whether they resided north or south of the border. While there still are hundreds of thousands of Latinos in the Valley living below the poverty line, many others have realized their dreams.
Latinos currently occupy important positions in our local city, county and state governments. In addition, they are now representing us in court, treating our illnesses and injuries, helping us with our taxes, and are a growing presence in running our schools.
The new president of Fresno State, Dr. Joseph Castro, is a shining example of how education has propelled Latinos into the middle and upper classes.
The grandson of farmworkers born in Mexico who helped raise him in a single-parent home in Hanford, Castro earned a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in public policy at UC Berkeley. He then obtained a Ph.D. in higher education at Stanford.
Even more significant than Dr. Castro's success, however, is the fact that Latinos now comprise 39% of the student body at Fresno State, by far the largest ethnic group. Whites are next, at 29%, followed by Asians, 15%.
Dez Del Rio, author and musician, has said, "When you stop chasing your dreams, your dreams start chasing you." Our local Latino population is chasing their dreams, and fulfilling them. Stay tuned.
For decades — even centuries — Latino Americans were all but invisible to most Americans.
Gary Wayne Walker is a resident of Fresno. His novel, "Vengeance Is Mine," is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and a Kindle download.