Amsterdam, NY in the 1960's
I have been a student of the American civil rights movement since checking out a book on the subject from the Lincoln County Public Library back in the early 70's. During that time, civil rights were predominantly focused on righting inequality towards the Black population of the United States. There may have been a little bit in that book about Mexicans given the Cesar Chavez and United Farm Workers Union picket line demonstrations of the late '60's. I became absorbed in that book, probably 250 pages - the longest book I had read by the 8th grade (Harry Potter readers do this casually by 2nd grade in the modern era). It was evident to me, having been in primary school in Costa Rica; a homogenous country where everyone looks the same, is of the same faith (Catholic), and enjoys a dominant middle-class, that there was a class structure in North Carolina. I guess our eyes are opened when we are in pre-teen years, that everyone is not the same, and that everyone is not treated the same. My brother Carlos and I were the first Latino children to enter the Lincoln County Schools in January of 1971, we were a novelty at best. I often joke that when we entered the school on that day, there were little white boys and girls, little black boys and girls, and Carlos and Luis Lobo. By the time I was reading that book in the 8th grade, four years after our arrival, I could also see a distinction in economic class.
I have wondered why I became interested in the subject matter at such a young age. Now, I am sure it was because I was trying to find "ME" in that book. Latinos did not exist in the national dialogue of civil rights, or for that matter in any other dialogue given a 4% representation of the American population until the late '80s. The Latino population primarily existed in NY made up primarily of Puerto Ricans arrived after WWII; in Miami made up of Cuban refugees from the Castro revolution of the early 1960's; and the TexMex and CaliforniaMex of 400 years ago.
There was a wave of Costa Ricans that followed my father, Gerardo "Jerry" Lobo, first from Costa Rica to Amsterdam, NY in the early '60's, with many of these early immigrants creating the Costa Rican settlements in north New Jersey, given the economic decline of upstate NY by the late '60's. My father was part of FAB Industries, and was relocated to Lincolnton, NC in 1969. Thus began a vast migration of Costa Ricans from the north to what became known as LincolnTICO (Lincolnton)
, and then later a direct destination from Costa Rica.
Then came the "Great Latino Migrations" of the 1980's driven by murderous civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, where socialism was trying to overthrow US backed fascism, and most significantly by the collapse of the Mexican economy and the devaluation of the peso. Waves upon waves of young Latino men crossed the southern border of the US seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Most often the male arrives alone, just like my Dad did in 1964, and in time sends for their loved ones or meets a significant other here. The US economy was red hot from the mid-80's through the Great Recession of recent days, and the labor provided by these immigrants was absorbed by our great capitalistic machine even as their presence was at first ignored and then derided and politicized by nativists and right-wing politicians. Today, the Latino population of 50 million, 75% of them BORN in the US, has become the largest minority.
1/3 of the peoples of the United States are of Asian, African and Latino heritage. This matters in the conversations of public education, the work force and the government apparatus. The impact is a game changer in the faith community where the Latino and Asian communities have propped-up a declining Catholic Church in America and caused an evangelical explosion in mainline and independent Protestant churches. It is amazing to me to see that the largest Protestant church in Winston Salem, also has the largest Latino congregation in the area, because even churches need new members to stay in business. This is a far cry from the 26 Catholic families, mainly relocated from the north, that gathered every other Sunday at St. Dorothy's Catholic Church in Lincolnton, NC, as we were not large enough to have a full-time priest in 1970.
Last year I visited Dr. June Atkinson , Superintendent of Schools for NC in Raleigh. I was referred to her by a friend in DC that had met her at a White House conference on education. Dr. Atkinson was gracious to receive me even as I admitted not being sure why I was there, only that my friend had suggested the meeting. I proceeded to tell her what my new assignment entailed in my banking career and how surprised I was, being a student of the Latino culture, that 22% of children 16 and under in the NC schools are Latino. Dr. Atkinson gently clarified my ignorance by telling me that 50% of children entering the NC public schools are of Asian, African and Latino heritage. 50%! Then after about 10 minutes she said "Luis, now I know why you are here. It is for me to introduce you to Robert Landry, most recently Superintendent of Schools in Davie County, close to where you live, and he is a native of Puerto Rico". Fast forward to last month, Dr. Landry will now join our Multicultural Advisory Council. Amazing how things work!
I began to attend the MLK Holiday breakfast gatherings in Washington DC many years ago. It was there that I became more familiar with the heritage, arts, spirit and impact of the Black community. These gatherings were filled with joy, preaching and the best gospel music. I began to take my children with me and witnessed a diverse attendance probably because DC is global in its population.
Last year, I attended the MLK gathering here in Winston Salem, it did not look diverse. Some speaker prompted my memory about the days of when my father first arrived in Amsterdam, NY in the winter of 1964. President Kennedy had just been assassinated and the US economy was in a downturn. He was unemployed for about 6 months, unprepared for a US winter, with holes in the soles of his shoes. He and his cousin Horacio Lobo and his future brother-in-law William Montero, lived in a barely heated basement apartment. They found succor from a Catholic priest, Padre Mauro, an expatriate Cuban refugee that had fled to Costa Rica, then reassigned to Amsterdam, NY who helped with basic necessities and job referrals. They were also embraced by Maco and Fela Rivera and their children, a Puerto Rican family that they met at church. I had not been back to Amsterdam in 34 years until some years back. I took my children to see where their grandfather had first settled in American, but also to give a thank you to this family, that in the teary-eyed words of my uncles Horacio and William : "that family took away our hunger many times", tearing-up myself as I write these words. This is the common immigrant story world-wide.
I believe that my father learned from the Rivera's and Padre Mauro that "a hand up is NOT a hand out". Then I saw it growing up in NC, when people would knock on our door at 3:00 am, because they heard that a man lived there that could help them find a job, a place to live. I remember my father visiting the local jail to help someone picked up for some infraction. I remember him helping people fill out their immigration papers, getting a drivers license, pulling blankets from our closet to hand to someone in need. At his funeral 20 years ago, my brothers and I stood in line and greeted people of EVERY race; whites, Asians, Blacks, Latinos, fellow Costa Ricans, multi-generational. There was a common theme:" you father helped me get a job, your father helped me buy my house, your father helped me reunify my family, etc.".
Monday, I will attend the MLK breakfast again, in Winston Salem. My nephew Andres Arce Lobo will be my guest, along with a diverse group of team mates.
I really like the engraved steel weight someone gave me years ago, it reads: " BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD".
In the final analysis, your attitude determines your effectiveness in everything, every time! LGL www.LuisLobo.Biz