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Bloomington-Normal community members discuss identity, Latin and Hispanic heritage

Sonny García, center, introduces himself while sitting at the table of panelists. They are seated at a white long table. Two panelists are on each of his sides.
Melissa Ellin
Sonny García, center, introduces himself while sitting at the table of panelists.

First, second and third-generation immigrants of Latin and Hispanic heritage discussed their identities and how they fit into the Bloomington-Normal community Tuesday night. All residents, they were brought together for a LatinX Heritage Month kickoff panel event from the McLean County Museum of History — where the event was held — and Illinois State University.

The topic of discussion was “the politics of labels” as they are viewed from the “Heartland.”

High schooler José Manuel Patiño Diaz, Illinois State University students Nicte Rivadeneyra-Braswell and Mario Jasso, activist Sonny García, and museum spokesperson Micaela Harris all shared how they identify within the complex array of terms available for those of Latin and Hispanic heritage.

Each of the five panelists uses a different label. Where third-generation immigrant Harris prefers LatinX — an umbrella term for anyone of Latin American origin — second-generation immigrant García uses either Indigenous or Chicano, which refers more specifically to Mexican-Americans.

Patiño Diaz said he tends to use “Latino, Hispanic, and most of all, Venezuelan,” as that’s where he was born and partially raised.

Rivadeneyra-Braswell opts for Latine, a gender-neutral term the ISU sophomore said parallels a complex queer identity. However, Rivadeneyra-Braswell prefers to go even more general with mixed race.

Using less defined terms, Rivadeneyra-Braswell said, makes things “easier.”

Jasso said his primary identity is still in flux.

“For the longest time I've always seen myself as Mexican, but as I've gotten older, I've been exploring — such as the Hispano, Chicano and LatinX,” he said during the panel. “And so it's been a journey.”

Jasso is in ISU’s Latin America and Latino/a Studies program, which he said has challenged him to reflect on his terminology.

There are also still new identifiers being developed for the community. The Chicano movement started during the 1960s, LatinX can be traced back to the early 2000s, and Latine evolved even more recently to account for the LGBTQ+ community members who identify with multiple pronouns.

Director of ISU’s Latin program — which is a co-sponsor of the event — Maura Toro-Morn told WGLT after the discussion that she thinks the panel illuminated this complex Latin and Hispanic labeling system, the impacts of which can be seen through the Bloomington-Normal residents.

“It's also the idea to challenge … that one label can hold all of us,” she said. “I think the panel here this evening exemplified that even one individual can actually deploy several labels at once.”

For some residents, the use of certain labels can also bring discomfort. Harris said during the panel that she uses LatinX because it is a more inclusive term, but it’s still not a perfect fit.

Micaela Harris poses in front of a judge's stand in the room where the panel was held.
Melissa Ellin
Micaela Harris

“I don't really identify in any particular way with Latino or Chicana, Hispanic, Mexican,” she said. “A lot of it is boxes to fill out on paper. If I have to choose, I'll check white and Hispanic and move on with my day.”

Instead, Harris said she identifies with the culture and the community. She said she finds pieces of her culture in her grandfather, who did activism for migrant children and worked with Cesar Chavez, a well-known civil rights activist.

“Those values … that's what the identity is to me,” she said.

García, the oldest member of the panel at 52, said he is confident in his Indigenous status because of a DNA test that confirmed he is 100% Mesoamerican.

“That's what I identify as so deal with it,” he said.

Despite the different ways these multi-generational community members portray themselves, they all said Bloomington-Normal is where they call home. Some added that family is a home of sorts too, and Patiño Diaz said Venezuela is another home for him.

He told WGLT after the panel that he hopes to make it a home for even more immigrants by convincing more of his family to come here.

“We function as an outlet to bring more people here to give them better lives,” he said.

A Normal Community High School student, Patiño Diaz said he hopes to stay in Bloomington-Normal and attend ISU. He added that the more people from diverse cultures who come to the area, the more opportunities there will be for everyone to learn.

José Manuel Patiño Diaz poses in front of an old judge's stand in the room where the panel was held.
Melissa Ellin
José Manuel Patiño Diaz

Examples, he said, can be found in his friends, who learned his personal identity over time and now correct those who mislabel him as Mexican or otherwise.

“They explain to the people that ‘He's Venezuelan. Don't get it mixed,’” he said. “And that's something that really, you know, that really resonates with me because it shows that I've educated people.”

On a similar note, Harris told WGLT she hopes the community will continue discussing these concepts of race, ethnicity and identity outside of the panel.

“These are very complex topics that are not often discussed but deserve to be discussed on there's lots of facets to them,” she said.

LatinX Heritage Month officially starts Sept. 15, but events will be happening through and after the Oct. 15 conclusion of the celebration. Opportunities will include a museum installation and more panels from ISU and other sponsors.

A recording of the first conversation — Politics of Labels — can be found on the McLean County History Museum’s YouTube channel.

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Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.
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