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The complexities of celebrating immigrant heritage amidst ongoing immigration debates

Emiliano Aguilar, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is participating in a history workshop at the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Courtesy of Emiliano Aguilar
Emiliano Aguilar, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is participating in a history workshop at the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

June was Immigrant Heritage Month, and the many celebrations that took place across the country, happened amidst ongoing immigration debates.

Emiliano Aguilar, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is in Colorado this summer, participating in a history workshop at the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

He spoke with Kira Zizzo about some of the challenges currently facing immigrants.

Kira Zizzo: So DACA recently had its 11th anniversary, yet the program remains entangled in legal uncertainty and controversy, particularly in light of the ongoing border situations.

Do you find it contradictory that the United States both celebrates Immigrant Heritage Month while simultaneously enforcing and passing laws that are perceived as anti-immigrant?

Emiliano Aguilar: Yeah, I think it's super complicated, particularly President Biden's address note on recognizing Immigrant Heritage Month only references DACA for two sentences, and he remains very optimistic for a program that's kind of been stuck in limbo since it was enacted under Obama's administration.

I think, yeah, it's challenging, but it is also great to recognize as well, and take time to recognize the accomplishments and benefits that we're granted as a country, as the United States, and made richer culturally, but also I think a lot of people look at it fiscally, but made richer by our strong immigrant heritage as a nation.

Kira Zizzo: On the topic of cultural accomplishments, you currently have a manuscript in progress called Building a Latino Machine, caught between corrupt political machines and good government reform.

Now, in your extensive research for this piece, can you tell us about some generally overlooked historical events or figures that we should be aware of?

Emiliano Aguilar: That's a great question. One that comes to mind is VF Garza, who ran a grocery store in my hometown of East Chicago, Indiana, which I write about in that manuscript.

And Garza is an early civic political leader as well as a small businessman, and I think he really exemplifies a trend that we see today.

I mean, granted, I'm trained as a Latina/Latino historian, so a lot of what I have to say about immigrants comes from that vein, but recognizing through like the Small Business Administration, right, that today Latino small businesses, Latina, Latino-run small businesses contribute $800 billion.

So I mean, to think that all these small businesses that are in many ways a continuance of people like Garza whose claim to fame in our neighborhood was chorizo like, essentially a sausage salesman, right?

I mean he is part of this now long, rich tradition we have of immigrant, particularly businesses coming, building and making space in these new places for them, and old places for us, and really forging communities through that, I think are really neat.

But also, sort of civic organizations, political organizations are key.

I'm constantly reminded of sort of my grandparents and their involvement in a mutualista in our hometown, you know the UBM, the Union for the Benefit of Mexican People sort of translate to English very quickly here.

A lot of that revolved around things like baseball, having cookouts, hosting the Independence Day parade.

And I think little things like that are such vibrant forms of making place, declaring presence, that we overlook.

And so I think like there's so many like wonderful little things that we can talk about when talking about Immigrant Heritage Month that really speak to the rich cultural exchange between all of us.

Kira Zizzo: And what are some ways that we can continue to uplift and support these small businesses and this heritage while there's major gentrification going on?

Emiliano Aguilar: Yeah. I think first, one of the key steps is recognizing how different it looks everywhere, right?

Again, trained as a Latina/Latino historian, so looking at this, as you know, Latinos and Latinos are either the main or the second contributor to growth in every state in the United States.

I mean, here in Colorado it's, I believe the Argentine community up over 200% between censuses, and in my home state of Indiana, the Salvadorian community.

And it's not just, I think going to these businesses and supporting these small businesses, which shout out, I did appreciate going to the farmer's market here in Boulder yesterday and having some delicious Salvadorian food myself, but, also wanting to walk along with and listen.

Like there is a, I think, a really strong point to be made about the empathy of listening and understanding the individual stories that will look different, not only state to state, city to city, but block by block, family by family.

I think a lot of that is done personally.

Kira Zizzo: And speaking of these immigrant working communities, can you give us a snapshot of what these workforces look like now in the present and what we can expect in the future?

Emiliano Aguilar: One in five workers will be Latino/Latina themselves in just a matter of years.

It's a relatively young group, with a few exceptions.

I believe it's the Paraguay and the Argentine community in the United States tends to be more in line with the median age of the average United States citizen.

So that's going to be, I think, interesting.

But also we have, I think, on the future to start thinking about and immediately now, right, the aging older generations of Latina/Latino communities and recognizing like there is this huge demand in healthcare and services, right?

Caring for our elders, that's a pressing demand today.

As well as, I mean, this is a labor force as well that's always going to be prominent in agricultural labor, whereas that was once solely ethnic Mexicans.

We've seen quite a divergence or a diversity in that agricultural labor force now that I think is very key as well.

Kira Zizzo: And is there anything else you'd like to add just on the topic of Immigrant Heritage Month and immigration, things that the public should know about that really isn't being discussed?

Emiliano Aguilar: Yeah, I think while the proclamation delivered by President Biden is great, you know, we should recognize that this has been an endeavor made across the nation, whether locally in our own counties, states since 2014, and it's something that looks differently everywhere, right?

I mean, we have to recognize places like New York City that has a Haitian Heritage Week.

We have to recognize that yes, there might be these national proclamations, but it's really onto us as communities and within our own community to understand how that's going to look for us.

I mean there's going to be similarities, yes, there's going to be ethnic immigrant communities that are Mexican, or ethnic Mexican immigrant communities in several states, in every state, probably, right?

But the circumstances themselves are going to be different.

And we really need to, I think, approach and lean into that specificity to celebrate this, right?

We should want to know who lives with us, who our neighbors are, and we should want to welcome them, and be welcoming.

That story was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Kira Zizzo