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Creating Vermont's Latino Culture 

Local Matters

Most Americans view Cinco de Mayo -- May 5 -- as a sort of Latin version of St. Patrick's Day, a good excuse for a celebration, some salsa music, maybe a margarita or two. Last week, a local rock station played The Gipsy Kings singing a mostly Spanish version of the classic Eagles tune "Hotel California." "Happy Cinco de Mayo" the DJ reminded his listeners. (Never mind that The Gipsy Kings are from Spain and Cinco de Mayo commemorates an 1862 Mexican victory over the French.) And at Higher Ground, a crowd strutted its stuff on the dance floor at Friday night's "Latin Dance Party."

It was a diverse group. College-aged kids mixed with older folks in their fifties and sixties. Some people were well-dressed -- high heels, slinky dresses, neat sports coats. Others wore overalls and tie-dyes.ost of the dancers seemed to be happy keeping in time to the music. But not Luis Tijerina, a sharply dressed Mexican-American in his early fifties. Tijerina is a local artist, writer, scholar of military history and one of the principal organizers of the nascent Burlington Latino Organization.

On Friday night Tijerina was focused on the dance's implications for the future of Vermont's quickly growing Latino community -- now the state's largest minority, according to one recent estimate. For him and other Latinos, finding a niche within Vermont's Anglo majority has been a challenge.

The goal of the BLO "is to promote a social, cultural and political consciousness in Vermont about the Latino community and what it represents," says Tijerina, who's lived in Vermont for the last 13 years. "I recognize the challenges and difficulties that exist among Latinos in terms of class, social and cultural divisions. But I feel that in the long run, there will be a consensus for us to be powerful voice in Vermont."

As Tijerina points out, it's complicated preserving a "Latino" culture, and even more difficult to figure out exactly what that culture is. After all, Latin America isn't one country but many nations covering a large region of the globe. And while most Latin Americans may share a common language, individual differences -- from country to country, and among various classes and races within each country -- vary tremendously.

The Latino community in Burlington is no different, says Tijerina. Latin Americans living here include academics from South America, undocumented laborers on construction sites and dairy farms, office workers, au pairs, people from the Caribbean -- and the list goes on.

The idea behind the BLO is to address at least some of the common needs faced by everyone in the Latino community, from offering help learning English and finding work to getting health insurance. Tijerina admits that none of these goals will be easy. He would also like to see the BLO eventually gain a foothold in city and statewide politics, though that's still a ways down the road.

For now, however, Tijerina and the 20 or so other members of the BLO are taking things slowly, focusing on one meeting at a time. Just last month, for example, the group ratified a mission statement. Participants agreed the BLO will work "to create a Latino community that promotes and provides a social and cultural Latino environment, and be a voice of common ground in discussion, friendship and support."

It's an ambitious starting point. How successful the BLO will be in defining a single Latino voice remains very much an open question.

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Benjamin Witte


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