I’m at the second meeting of the Emerging Latino Leaders with over 40 other high school students from across Houston. I am one of three non-Latino/Latinas in the room, more of a bystander than a participant. I was invited as part of the HISD Student Congress, not as one of the members identified as a potential leader.
It’s lunchtime, and my mouth is burning from eating the homemade tostadas (I had completely ignored the heaps of sour cream that people were putting on their plates), and I run out of the room to get a bottle of water. Everyone else had cheered when the meeting organizer announced the food that was being served, but I had never even heard of tostadas, and evidently, I was not prepared to handle the spice.
As I enter the room where food is being served, I bump into Carlos, the adult who had invited us.
“So what do you think of the meeting?”
The Latino chief of staff to the mayor pro-temp (“the personal assistant to the vice mayor”) spoke to us that morning about the importance of being civically engaged. He talked of the importance of low voter turnout amongst the Latino population, about the low representation of Latinos in city council, about the day to day decisions of the city governments. I felt like I needed to say more.
“Well, I mean,” I sputter out. “This whole thing about civic engagement never really mattered to me until I joined the Student Congress. It’s not something my family ever really talked about, and it’s interesting to see so many of these issues apply to the Asian community as well.”
Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family with parents who had never voted, I had never seen the political process as one of my priorities. My entire life, I had focused on excelling within my tiny sphere of influence. I had no ambitions to ever run for political office, yet this morning, I felt like I had gotten a glimpse into the hard work that went into running the city. Little did I know, this same lack of exposure affected the Latino community as well.
Carlos and I talk about family and cultural influences in the Asian and Latino community for a few more minutes. By the time he walks away. the burn in my mouth is reduced to a dull tinge, but my mind has been sparked.
After lunch, each of us go up and talk about issues that affect us in our day to day lives. Some people talked about after-school jobs that prevented them from doing homework. Others talked about family obligations, long commutes, cooking, details that got lost in day to day life. I had never been in an environment where I could heard people talk so frankly about their issues. Even though I was surrounded by these same peers for 8 hours a day, I never heard about these struggles.
Even as just a bystander, I had known what I was getting myself into. I knew that I would be surrounded by people of a completely different culture and background, but frankly, I had expected something more…foreign.
At this point, I realized the importance of reaching outside of my bubble, of actively seeking diversity in a community.
The demographics of Houston will be the demographics of the US in 50 years. People keep emphasizing the importance of living in a global world, but I’m come to realize that it’s by digging deep into a community, sometimes just by sitting and listening to people, that people are able to understand one another. The only way to deal with a world that is speeding up is to slow down, to contextualize the problems I see within my own community, to attach to it a personal meaning. Only then can I see the universality of the issues we all face.