The following is an opinion piece by Flintside neighborhoods editor Jenifer Veloso. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected].
FLINT, Michigan -- I can still remember watching my mom and our Venezuelan friends making the masa for arepas in the kitchen. There is nothing like the smell of fresh arepas coming out of the oven -- feijoada, and cilantro cooking away in fresh rice.
In Brasil, there is a famous song called, “Sonho Meu.” The lyrics say, “Sonho meu, Sonho meu, Vai buscar quem mora longe, Sonho meu, Vai mostrar esta saudade.” Translated, that is, “My dream, My dream, It will bring someone who lives far away, My dream, It will show this longing.” How much I dream of my mom cooking, with Spanish or Portuguese music playing … it truly is an overwhelming joy and feeling of total satisfaction being immersed in and reminded of your culture.
The Latinx Technology Center in Flint celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 26, and brought the feeling of home to myself and many other people missing and longing for those who live far away.
Flint's Latinx Technology Center welcomed families from all over the city to its 20th anniversary celebration on June 26.
When I arrived at the Latinx Center, I can hardly explain the immense amount of peace and joy that I was overwhelmed with while I walked through the crowd. I heard Spanish everywhere with different accents coming from every direction. There was salsa music playing from a live band and the smell of arepa, frijoles, arroz, and corn filled the air. If I closed my eyes long enough, I was somewhere far away, surrounded by my culture. When I opened my eyes, although my family wasn’t there, my culture was there and there is something priceless about the feeling of happiness that brings.
I walked around quietly and just took in every second I could. That’s the best part about being a photojournalist is being invisible and documenting people being truly themselves, free of poses or the anxiety a camera can often bring. I watched kids play in the jump house while their mothers warned them in Spanish to be careful, “Cuidado hija!”
I watched families, friends, and strangers laugh and smile and speak to each other like there wasn’t a care in the world. I watched the director of the center, Asa Zucarro, walk through the crowd with a calm and satisfied energy. The need for cultural centers for people of different backgrounds is essential to the well-being and health of communities.
I grew up in Flint, but when I look back on my years growing up, I essentially grew up on an island. No one I knew spoke Portuguese, but in our house on good or bad days, my parents were speaking it. I didn’t grow up going to a school that was diverse, but at home Venezuelans and Brasilians danced, ate, fought, and laughed together. In my home, my parents hung art from the Amazon and my mother played music she grew up listening to. In high school, my friends would come over and we would have samba dance parties with my family and friends. It was all an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. I walked around Saturday wishing I would’ve known about the Latinx Technology Center growing up.
Community members danced on stage with the band during the 20th anniversary of the Latinx Technology Center.
I am grateful to know of the Latinx Center now, and the people who make it special. I am grateful for the work the center has done and continues to do to help immigrants learn English, find necessary resources to survive, and provide a sense of community.
Sheyla McLain (right) poses for a photo with a Colombian friend at the 20th anniversary of the Latinx Technology Center.
After I took all the photos I thought I would need, I walked over to a woman, Sheyla McLain, from Costa Rica. Bachata music was playing and I asked in Spanish if I could dance with her. She smiled wide and said, “of course.” Soon I was surrounded by beautiful Latin men and women dancing and laughing. I felt at home. I felt safe. I felt content.
While dancing I met a man who spoke Portuguese with me. I met the band members, and I met many other community members searching for that dream of “someone who lives far away.” Together we laughed, danced, and were living totally in the moment. I watched Sheyla call her husband over and they slow-danced together. I held the camera to my face and tears ran down my cheeks. There was so much joy and love in their faces.
Sheyla McLain and her husband dance at the 20th anniversary of the Latinx Technology Center
My favorite thing about my culture in Brasil is that Brasilians are so happy. Regardless of rain or shine, we have a smile on our faces. I had a smile on my face that day. Cultural centers bring unity, creativity, and support people who can feel isolated in a new city or place. Cultural centers bring art and reminders of the essential need for celebrating and acknowledging diverse people and experiences. Different cultures from across Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries can meld together. People who have been displaced can find a sense of belonging and normalcy.
Men and women have sacrificed leaving their culture, their home, and their families in search of safety and security in a new country. Many have suffered and endured much while going to a country where they didn’t know the language and what other barriers they would face. These men and women have grit that some could never imagine. What the Latinx culture brings to America, and to Flint, collectively is a spirit of never giving up, beauty, and diversity. To immigrate to a new place and leave everything behind to escape danger, tyranny, and corruption takes bravery that I will always marvel at and respect.
Bounce houses and kids activities were a big hit at the Latinx Technology Center's 20th anniversary.
I miss my family so much in Brasil. I think about my grandpa’s hand hanging over the edge of his hammock when he naps. I think about my grandma and I laying in bed together in Brasil, while she tells me stories about her life. I think about how the air smells different in Brasil. I miss the food. Oh, Sonho meu, Vai buscar quem mora longe.
The Latinx Center works tirelessly to provide experiences and support for the Latinx population in Flint. The center and its staff members help provide a sense of home and for that, I am personally forever grateful.