Latino Life: Living in ‘Gringolandia’

Sandra Guzman, NBC News, August 10, 2014

When you have to drive more than six hours to eat your favorite Latin American dish because local groceries don’t carry the ingredients to make it at home, you know you live in “Gringolandia.” That is what Nery Diaz, a native of Honduras, discovered days after moving to Maine a year ago.

“Even if my wife wants to cook baleada (a traditional Honduran dish that is similar to a Mexican quesadilla) at home, we haven’t been able to find a store locally that carries the flour to prepare it,” explained Diaz, who moved from the Washington, D.C-Virginia area–the epicenter of the U.S. Central American population–to South Portland, Maine a year ago to help open a Mexican restaurant with a friend.

“I can count the number of Latinos in this state in one hand, and most work in my restaurant,” he said jokingly of the Hispanic population in Maine. But the real cultural shock for Diaz, who lives with his wife and 12-year old daughter, wasn’t that he couldn’t find an eatery that carried his favorite delicacy when the craving hit. His big culture shock involved soccer, his favorite sport.

“In my old neighborhood I could walk to almost any public park on any day of the week and pick up a game of futbol,” he explained. “Since moving here, I’ve yet to see one player kicking the ball around,” Diaz said somberly. And this is coming from a man who managed a soccer league of twenty teams.

“But it’s worth the sacrifice,” he added. “There are more financial opportunities here for me and my family.”

Diaz is part of a growing number of Latino professionals who are moving from traditional Hispanic settlements to states and towns with very little Latino presence. Maine and Vermont, among the whitest states in the nation–both have less than 5 percent of Hispanic residents, combined. Yet these states have seen a six percent increase in the Hispanic population in the last decade, according to the U.S. Census.

Joan Zelaya used to live in West New York, New Jersey, a densely populated urban metropolis that feels more like Bogota and Havana and boasts a 95 percent Latin American population. When she moved to Athens, Ohio her culture shock was intense.

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Living in a place with few Latino neighbors and colleagues taught Zelaya to build a community with the small number of people of color she did find, she said. Yet even with a strong sense of comunidad that Zelaya was able to build, the feeling of otherness never went away.

“You can’t escape that otherness when you are the only Latina or woman of color in the office or in the supermarket,” she said. Zelaya recently quit her job as Co Director of Tutoring Services at Ohio University to move to Dallas. She confessed that part of the allure of Dallas was that it was more Latinocentric, even if she moved there without a job.

“It wasn’t that I experienced overt racism in Athens,” explained Zelaya, a community college teacher, but more subtle “micro aggressive moments.”

Some examples, said Zelaya, was when she would be told, ‘oh you are so articulate, you speak English so well,’ she said. “What they are implying is that only white people are articulate,” said Zelaya.

Something that happened a lot in Athens, Ohio was the fascination with Zelaya’s ethnic hair.

“A lot of people asked me about my curly hair and even asked to touch it,” she said. “I’ve had an evolution where ten years ago that would have been fighting moments,” she explained. “I never thought it was my responsibility to teach white people and others about Latino heritage but now I use those incidents as teachable moments–moments to connect.”

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