Latino Americans Blog

Great Latin American Cities

August 24, 2013 11:57 AM by Mario Alfonso Murillo

Mario Alfonso MurilloWhenever I travel abroad, and people ask me if I’m from the United States, I usually respond with an ironic “No, I’m from New York City,” to which I am greeted with awkward stares and quizzical looks.

While I say this mostly to get a laugh and ignite conversation, there is a serious side to my feelings about this. It’s the place both my parents came to as young people, from different spots in the hemisphere, forging a tri-national constellation that serves as the cultural and social foundation of my identity as a professional, a media educator, and perhaps most importantly, as a father raising conscientious and engaged children in this crazy metropolis.

When I say New York City, I truly mean it: New York City, in all its glory and funk! Maybe I’m just a bit over sensitive but few things bother me more than when New Yorkers refer to “the city” as Manhattan, in an instant erasing the complex geography of diverse communities that shape the other four boroughs, each with incredible stories to tell. The Manhattan-centric New Yorker does a disservice to the idea of NYC as the cultural mecca that it truly is, something I rediscover every time I take my long 40-mile bike rides from my neighborhood in Jackson Heights Queens, through Woodside, Sunnyside and Long Island City, on my way to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and Williamsburg, over the bridge into lower Manhattan, up the west side greenway towards Washington Heights, and Inwood, then into the Bronx, eventually winding my way down through El Barrio and East Harlem, and back into Queens over the 59th Street Bridge (sorry Staten Island, I have yet to take my bike onto the Ferry).

This is the city that I call home, and yes, one of the great Latin American cities!

Last year, as my eighth grade daughter embarked on a class “social justice” project in her school, I was reminded of this once again. The group was tasked to hook up with a local community based organization and work alongside them to really understand the situation facing the people they work with on the ground.  After choosing an important immigrant advocacy organization located in our neighborhood, the teachers suggested they needed a chaperone if they were going to conduct their site visits outside of Manhattan. This upset my daughter because she was extremely excited about showing her classmates her neighborhood in the process of doing the field work. I didn’t appreciate it either, thinking such a policy sent the wrong signals to kids who were just beginning to become involved in community activism throughout the city. What kind of civic engagement can you possibly participate in if the only circle you were allowed to explore on your own was the comfort zone of Greenwich Village?

It was a valuable teaching moment, and while the solution was to require chaperones for everybody in the class regardless of where they were conducting their field work – clearly not what I was calling for - I was pleased how my daughter’s group worked together in making it a worthwhile experience in community activism, throughout the city. They got out, made the connections with people directly affected by our current immigration policies, and visited places they would not have known otherwise. Among their achievements was hooking up with a local undocumented youth activist immersed in the campaign to support the Dream Act, who they later invited to the School to address the entire class about the rights and challenges facing young Latino immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents without proper documentation.

Hopefully, the entire process slammed the breaks on the stereotypes of the “unknown” world lurking outside of Manhattan. As my daughter knows too well, I’m always ready to strike down faulty stereotypes.

I remember an episode in one of my first media jobs as a production assistant at one of New York’s all-news radio stations. I was working the overnight shift, and the editor on duty, in an effort to get to know this new kid in the newsroom, began to ask me questions about what I studied, where I lived, and generally what were my origins.

“Mario Moo-rillo,” he said in a Romanesque twang, “You must be Italian.”

I explained to him that my mother was from Moca, Puerto Rico, and my father was from Bogotá, Colombia, and that I was the fruit of the Latin American experience in New York City, a 100 % Colombo-Rican hybrid with a deep cultural connection to all of the Americas. Yes, I know, it’s a bit over the top, but that’s exactly how I described myself to people during my college days and immediately thereafter, as I became enlightened about the work of towering historical figures such as Jose Martí, Pedro Albizu Campos, and Agusto César Sandino.

A few moments after my response, the editor looked at me and said, tongue firmly pressed against his cheek, “So Mario, does this mean you’re too lazy to sell cocaine?” The few newsroom occupants present at the time belted out a collective laugh, at my expense.

Although the joke bothered me, at the time I didn’t make a big stink about it, instead filing the episode in the back of my head for future reference. I carry that seemingly insignificant interaction to this day, as it reminds me of the problematic perceptions about Latin Americans, people continue to share, even people who might be described as educated, enlightened professionals with important decision-making roles in some of our most important media outlets.

I share this anecdote with my radio journalism students all the time as I get them to check their own misconceptions at the door. And my daughter, who I affectionately refer to as my “Quarter-Rican” (her mother is from Colombia) has heard me tell it to people a thousand times, a reminder to her about who she is, who she is NOT, and where she comes from: one of the great Latin American cities!

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