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What Does Martin Luther King Mean to Latinos Today?

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What Does Martin Luther King Mean to Latinos Today?

"I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2013, we must ask ourselves the question: has his dream become a reality for Latinos? 

We know that Dr. King inspired many Latinos, including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Latinos, just like other Americans, consider Dr. King a great leader of the civil rights movement. If he were alive today, he likely would be working side by side with Latinos to address issues of inequality.

But what does his legacy mean for us today? Has his dream been achieved?

Unfortunately, it has not. Blacks and Latinos continue to lag in educational attainment, in socioeconomic status, and to face discrimination. And one of the biggest civil rights issues facing our country today is synonymous with being Latino — immigration and undocumented workers. We all know about Arizona’s “show me your papers” law, which allows police officers to ask people for proof that they are citizens or legal residents. In Arizona and many other places, Latinos are at the forefront of today’s civil rights issues.

Latinos are now the largest racioethnic group in the United States — we are over 50 million strong. But the whole notion of “race” is very complex for us. Recently the Census Bureau has proposed to change the questions on race and ethnicity on the census. For Latinos, how are race and ethnicity different?

When I ask participants in my research to self-identify their race (they all self-identify as Latino), I am typically met with a range of responses. Some are angry at me and state that they are Mexican American or Puerto Rican and that I shouldn’t be asking about race — their race, they say, is Latino! Others have written in comments, such as “I checked off ‘white’ but don’t tell my family, they would be angry at me.” Many Latinos have mixed backgrounds that don’t easily fit into a box. More importantly, many of us don’t want to be put in a box, even if it is “multi-racial.’”

Yes, we often face discrimination for our Latino identity. Yet it is our very identity that draws us together and gives us strength. Our cultural identity as Latinos often centers on things other than race. For example, to many of us “Latino” means placing high value on an “extended family” of cousins, aunts, uncles, and others. Culturally, family comes first, well before careers or other concerns. In our extended Latino family, we belong. Does that buffer the discrimination or other issues we face? I think so.

Another non-racial connection we value is our culture of origin. Most of us prefer to be known by a term connected with our own heritage: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian or Guatemalan. For me, Soy Boricua: I am Puerto Rican.

Recently, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was chosen to swear in Vice President Joseph Biden for a second term; she will be the first Hispanic to do so. She also recently has published a book in which she states that she prefers to be known as “Sonia from the Bronx.” This is a perfect example of our need and desire to remain true to our culture and culturally connected. 

This year, for the first time, a Latino, Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, will give the keynote address at Dr. King’s commemorative service at King’s own Ebenezer Baptist Church. He will raise his voice in tribute to a hero of civil rights. Perhaps as Dr. King said, we all need to use our voices to tell our stories, whether that voice is in Spanish or in English. Whether we consider ourselves Latino, Black, White, Mixed, Native, or identify by country, we need to make ourselves heard.

It’s what Dr. King would have wanted.  

Donna Maria Blancero is associate professor of management at Bentley University.

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