FIRST-PERSON: United amid our diversity
GAINESVILLE, Ga. (BP) -- Diversity is a positive experience only if it is accompanied with respect, understanding, gratitude and hope. It is not a surprise that the United States has become a highly multicultural and ethnically diverse country. America has embraced peoples of different languages, ethnicities, colors and cultures. This warm attitude has made America one of the most welcoming civilizations on the face of the earth -- a trait possible because of the faith on which our Founding Fathers established the foundations of this land of freedom.
Many Latin American governments are troubled with political corruption, rampant violence, social intolerance, systematic violation of human rights and chaotic economic administration. The only hope of survival for many Latinos has been to "look for the American dream" -- a dream which many have accomplished through hard work, education, responsible family relationships, and love for this country.
As a Hispanic and as an American citizen, I believe it is still possible to achieve unity in the midst of our diversity. Let me share a personal example.
I came to America for the first time in 1995 to attend college in the small town of Cleveland, Tenn. I had just turned 18 and had left my native Peru with a bag full of dreams and high hopes. My parents sent me to America under a student visa and advised me to study hard, mature (something I must be honest to say I had not done much of while living at home) and learn as much as possible.
Once I got to Tennessee, I struggled to learn English and worked long hours washing dishes in the university cafeteria. It was hard being a Hispanic college student in the U.S. But there was one instance that I am deeply grateful for and that makes me believe that it is possible to find this unity within our diversity.
One Saturday I found myself needing a haircut. Since I did not own a car, I decided to wander around the neighborhood trying to find a haircut place. After several minutes of walking, I found an old barber shop called Joe's. I decided to go in, and to my surprise, the place was packed with old, white gentlemen. When they saw me walk in, I could feel by the way they looked at me that they had not seen a young, brown Peruvian before. To this day, I wonder if they were ready for me at that moment.
Joe, a white man in his early 60s, was the owner of the place. He gave me a rough look and asked: "Young man, how can I help you?" In my broken English I tried to explain to him what I wanted. It seemed he understood well, because he did an excellent job.
That first day, he did not say much and neither did I. But for the next four years, as I kept coming for my regular haircut, I got to know Joe well. He introduced me to other fine people like Larry, Mark, Glenn, Bob, Rich and many other hard-working white men. They helped me improve my "southern" English and showed me a love for the southern culture -- specifically its amazing food (homemade fried chicken, 'tater salad, sweet tea, coleslaw and so forth) and its joyful country music.
On the other hand, I taught them two of the most valuable words we Latinos can say to anyone: "amigo" (friend) and "familia" (family). In reality, this group of men became my amigos and were the only familia I had for four years while in college. I exposed them to our salsa and merengue music. They took me to their homes and shared with me their special celebrations and their homemade food. But most important, they offered me their friendship. We were able to overcome all cultural, racial and even language barriers.
I will never forget the day of my college graduation. I went early that Saturday morning to get my regular haircut to make sure I looked good for commencement. There they were -- my amigos, waiting for me with a delicious breakfast. After eating together, they surprised me with an envelope containing a generous monetary gift to start my new life in Chicago, where I was going to pursue my post-graduate education. Over the years, I kept in touch with some of those men, all of whom have since passed away.
A few months ago, 22 years after this beautiful experience, I took my wife and four children to Cleveland, Tenn., and showed them where Joe's used to be. I told my family that the best example of unity in the midst of diversity I ever learned did not come from a college classroom, from a political speech, or (sad to say) from a church pulpit. Instead it came from the generous hearts I found in simple but sincere older white men.
As a Pastor and a community servant to many Hispanics in Gainesville Ga., my prayer and hope during these times of much controversy is to become a bridge builder to a better community, a new Hispanic generation with Christian principles, and a greater and safer nation for our children. Unity in the midst of diversity is only possible through respect, understanding, gratitude and hope, and these values come only from a heart in which the Great Commandment -- to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself -- has found real meaning.