This past Thursday and Friday, Sept. 28 and 29, West Chester hosted the ninth annual Latino Studies Conference. Over 40 scholars, community members, activists and professionals presented their work in 26 presentations. The conference began at 8 a.m. on Thursday with registration and a breakfast of coffee and pan dulce.
At 11 a.m., the conference’s keynote speaker, Professor Javier Ávila, recipient of the 2017 Pennsylvania professor of the year award, presented his talk, “The Trouble with My Name,” about his Puerto Rican identity and heritage. He began by explaining the complexities of race across national boundaries. “Most of my life I was white. Let me explain this to the white people in the room so you don’t get offended,” Ávila said. “In Puerto Rico, if you have this skin tone or lighter you are white and no one tells you that you’re not. So, I lived most of my life white. When I saw “Ghost” with Patrick Swayze, I identified with Swayze, not with the Puerto Rican who killed him. To me, that was not me. I thought the only dark person in my family was my dad. My mother called him negro, black man, but in Puerto Rico that means honey, sweetheart. And then, I wrote him a card when I was five years old and this is what it read: ‘Papí tu eres chocolate, pero como te quiero’. Daddy you are chocolate but I love you anyway; meaning that I assumed there was negativity with darkness. So, I was white until when? Yes, until someone told me. Life has a way of presenting irony to you. Thirty years after that picture was taken I became the dark one in my family. I became negro. Because you don’t pick who you fall in love with and I fell in love with a white woman and we had a white-tino child. This shows us that race is a fallacy, because how can I be white one day and be brown the next day, and be exactly the same person with the same value.”
He then read his poem “Accent with an accent on the A”: “Out here the accent mark does not exist. It is an imposition, a reminder of something all too distant,” said Ávila. “A land where the iguana is as common as the squirrel where giant groves of mangoes cover fields, no snow has ever touched and where there is a different name for god. The accent mark, not welcome in diplomas licenses or other legal documents, would be too much to ask. It simply looks too foreign on the page. Like the scar that we see on a stranger’s face, and too afraid to ask the history behind it, we turn away. The accent is the scar that turns into a scar. The mark that met its maker on the border so it would know its place. But the accent refuses to be erased and it is always there whether or not the eye can spy it. It is shaped like a ramp to propel us all into the future above the walls that ignorance can build. Si bien que cicatriz es salvación y luz que nos rebela que el amor de sus moronas fronteras y América se escribe con acento.”
Ávila recited a selection of his poetry including: “Back in the Good Old Days,” a poem addressed to “anyone who wants the country to be the way it used to be, because this is the country you’re referring to where I’m not included,” “Teaching Statement” a tribute to his mother, a teacher, who still lives in Puerto Rico, and a poem about “[his] son’s four great grandmothers,” which encapsulates “what America, not just the United States of America, but all of America, means to [Ávila].”
]After Ávila’s talk, there were many more presentations, workshops and film screenings that day including the film “I Learn America,” a documentary “about immigrant high school students adapting to the United States,” and “Organizing for Immigrant Rights,” a presentation by Jessica Culley a representative of the Farmworker Support committee (CATA) and the Kaolin Workers Union (KWU); a tour of the “Human Rights in Latin America” exhibit by four of the WCU students who curated it alongside Professor Michael Di Giovine.
To finish the conference there was a lunch where the Latino Professionals Luncheon of Chester County presented four scholarship awards to three West Chester and one Immaculata students.
After chicken and beef fajitas were served, a representative of the Latino Professionals Luncheon went to the front of the room to announce the recipients of awards and to describe the origin of the scholarships: “One day a student needed $800 to continue their studies the next semester and finish their degree. So, we reached out to the community and pulled together the $800 that that student needed.” Since that first donation they have given out 26 scholarships. Then, WCU Provost, Lorraine Bernotsky, said that “we are all painfully aware that this is a really critical time to be having this conference as we are working to unite our communities.”
In summing up the events participants, sociology professor, Miguel Ceballos said that, “we had an attorney come to speak today, we had members of the mayor’s office from Philadelphia, we had members from PICC the Pennsylvania Immigration Coalition, a group that presented twice today. There’s a real range. So maybe half and half. Half academic and half community activism, community organizations and community programs.”
He then described “the connections that you see [at the conference]” such as, “the teachers [from Rustin High School] who are ELL (English Language Learner) teachers working with the faculty in the TESOL program here,” and the cooperation between, “two members from the department of health studies, who are faculty, and two members of this maternal child health consortium, a Chester County organization that serves low-income mothers, they presented together. Now four years ago I presented my work on Latino maternal infant health and there was a member of the maternal child health consortium there and because of that we met and I was able to access their data to analyze. I got funding for that from the university. I made that connection through this conference.”
Students from John Harris High School in Harrisburg and Rustin High School in West Chester came to the conference on the final day for presentations, a tour of the West Chester campus and the closing lunch. One John Harris HS student, Oscar Perdomo, said that the presentations he saw helped him learn about “the challenges and opportunities of being Latino today.” For example, “[he] heard in a talk about how in Arizona they can pull you over if you just look like an illegal immigrant.”
Aaron Gallant is a third-year student majoring in urban and environmental planning with minors in anthropology and Spanish. He can be reached at AG851503@wcupa.edu.