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La voz de la juventud (the voice of youth)

Meeting with young Hispanic and Latino/a/x leaders all connected to southwest Detroit was an enlightening experience. In a group of varying age groups and levels of experience, we all still found common ground when it came to discussing our passion and dedication that all stems back to building up our communities. 

It was later in the evening when we all hopped on Zoom. Some folks were home, others were in their respected organizations or even in their school. Regardless of the location, folks were attentive and made the time to share their thoughts. 

Portrait of Esther Guerrero by Jasmin Smith

Conversations revolving around the challenges, the roses, and what we look forward to in our work or communities, I realized, are surprisingly not too common. Networking occurs but, where different organizers from others organizations all come together to simply talk was something that I have not experienced all too much. Not only did I feel heard by important figures at Skillman but by other folks who I would most likely not have met or spoken to had it not been for this call. Knowing that my shared thoughts were going to be understood by other young Hispanic/Latino/a/x organizers and leaders made me feel comfortable and simply created a nice feeling. It led me to feel energized and more motivated than ever. That is the effect of these kinds of conversations and I believe if we were given the space to continue speaking in this way, then that motivation will be felt by others too. 

Representation matters

To be understood and represented is something that we all want. As Latinx individuals in our communities, we sometimes are not understood due to our demands. As a result, people fail to truly see us. Despite going through so much we still make the time, put in the work, and rise above our challenges.

Being recognized for this would be comforting because that would mean also recognizing our hardships. When we are recognized it also boosts the work and sends a message that we are doing a good job. Representation is also sought in the places we serve because even though we are present, we are not being noticed.

Balancing demands

Being a first-generation Latinx individual sometimes comes with a lot of demands. As we are trying to establish ourselves, so are our parents and even some of our community members. Balancing school, work, family life, and extracurricular activities are far from an easy task. Not only do we worry about our communities but about everything else.

We are balancing a lot and that is occasionally not easy. Some of us have families, school, work, community organizing, religious obligations, and more. It is difficult to continue this work sometimes when there are other things impacting your time and energy. 

In recognizing our demands, we were also able to recognize our inequities.

Most of us at some point in our life attended school in Detroit and were presented with a rather disheartening experience. A student in the group remarked that they do not have new textbooks and supplies like desks are worn out. Mention of teachers’ lacking motivation and not uplifting students’ voices was included. It is furthermore difficult to be uplifted by a teacher who does not know and can not understand some of the adversities their students may be facing. More teachers who look like us and care for us are not only wanted but seriously needed.

Our stories are also not actually told. As witnessed in recent times, our generation has begun to truthfully take this on but, we are not fully provided with a fitting platform to present the stories where we illustrate our identities and history.

Barriers for first-generation students 

These inequities continued to be framed when we brought up FAFSA which serves as an example of confusion and reluctance. As first-generation students, our parents and families are not used to dealing with these sorts of applications or documents. Due to this confusion, we become less comfortable with the idea of seeking help because we don’t even know where to begin, so who are we even supposed to be looking for?

Most of our parents didn’t go to college let alone school in the United States. We talked about not knowing what certain terms meant when it came time to finally take that step of encountering the unknown. For many, that is why our parents came, for us to receive a good and “better” education. How are we supposed to get there if we don’t even know what “FAFSA” stands for? Who are we supposed to ask?

A new generation of Americans

Our communities are constantly at risk because of the fears we grew up having of our loved ones being taken from us. A lot of members of the community migrated to this country and may still not have the proper documentation to truly live a “free” life. I believe that is one of the reasons why our community is held tightly, we are protecting each other. Some of us know the pain of being torn from the arms of a relative because of their migratory status. Some of us have been made fun of because we could not correctly pronounce a word in English due to it being our second language. Some of us don’t speak English at all. The drive is still there. We are fueled to diminish these issues that only instill fear in our communities. 

Beginning this work and being introduced to building up our communities is something some of us never thought we would do. It is something though, that has been prevalent in our lives and has allowed us to impact others, the same way we were. A leader mentioned that they had an individual by the name of Lex that allowed them to figure out more about themselves and what they want in life. There is a value placed on the Lex’s in all our lives and those programs we would attend after school because in these atmospheres is where a seed is planted, consequently becoming vital in our communities.

Mentors and programs that house our people and are facilitated by our people are so fundamental because this is also how movements begin. A lot of us are still doing this work because of that ONE person that allowed us to see the potential we contain and that we can truly create change. Once we are heard, once we are given the time and space, we feel motivated. We also want to impact.

The organizers’ charge

Working hard to create the change we wish to see in our communities is tiring work. Being let down and discouraged is common in our work! As organizers, I believe we have become more vocal about this as times have changed. Now, we seriously take into account the importance of mental health which includes rest, support, social workers in schools, and space to process what’s happening.

In Latinx/Hispanic culture, mental health is a stigmatized topic. We did not grow up knowing techniques of how to handle our emotions or how to know when to stop working. There also have not been many people outside of our homes that could teach us and highlight the importance of these methods, let alone the meaning of mental health. Social workers in schools were brought up because this can be a more beneficial approach to assisting a student in need rather than having a police officer who will only make the student feel worse about themself. It will also establish a mindset that they are a criminal compared to a social worker seeking to understand the reasons behind certain actions the student acted out on. Maybe the student has never even been asked to express how they are feeling. If they had this, it could be life-changing. We deserve a space to process our trauma, we deserve someone to speak to that will understand and we deserve rest because this work is at times exhausting. 

More time, more appreciation, more resources, a bigger audience, and more involvement, are things we are always going to want. The list can go on. This is not out of greed though, we want to amplify our message. We want everyone to have access to the resources we discovered, created, or are creating. At the end of the day, we want more and we want what is best not only for us but for our communities. 

Hope and trust at the forefront

A hopeful message was the result of our conversation. Everyone voiced that they were aware of how difficult the road to making change is and despite this, still continuing to put in everything necessary to see these changes through. People have voiced to us that they don’t believe in us and that the work we do is irrelevant. It is also difficult to receive validation when you are part of a group that at times has failed to be taken seriously. These are parts of the challenges we encounter but despite this, we will keep pushing forward because we know what we are doing is significant no matter what anyone says.

As the conversation began to wind down, we were asked something that is not quite commonly asked. “What do you need?” Some of us were taken aback, some of us answered almost immediately and some of us resonated with the words that were posed. Folks voiced their needs for sleep, money, or a simple break.

We wanted to let The Skillman Foundation know that they can trust and believe in us. Our knowledge and work are valuable and we WILL build up our communities and see these things through because it is in our best interest to be facilitators of change in our communities.

Esther Guerrero

Esther Guerrero (21) is a senior at Wayne State University.

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