As we blow out the candles on Nashville 2012 and wish for an even brighter 2013, we look back in thanks at a year of community events of service, artistic expression and dire dialogue. International celebrities came to town and locals launched to new arenas in a spirit of championing change and coming together locally and globally for the future.
We celebrated collaborations that culminated in gatherings, like the Nashville International Center for Empowerment/ World Relief/ Catholic Charities Christmas Party and the Grand Opening of the Casa Azafran Community Center. We danced to Afinke outside the Parthenon at Celebrate Nashville and to Spanish Harlem Orchestra at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Great Performances at Vanderbilt presented La Excelencia, a band that drove us to our feet and sat down with us after the show to discuss socially relevant lyrics and creative process. Explosion Negra blasted the generation gap, playing to Tennessee State University students and recipients of the Business and Community Awards given by the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Javier Palomarez, President and CEO of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, congratulated the NAHCC and Mayor Dean on business growth in Nashville while First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged The 49th General Session of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to press on in faith toward social justice. The American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Conference on Immigration Law was held at Opryland Hotel. While covering discussions on June 14, I witnessed unity as Republicans and Democrats shared frustration with a broken immigration system and passion about helping their clients. All agreed comprehensive reform is complicated but vital (see links below). On June 15 when President Obama announced the Deferred Deportation Act, all were elated at a first step taken.
Music City hosted musical legends, like Brazilian Gilberto Gil, and literary stars, like Junot Diaz, Pulitzer-Prize winning Dominican-American author who spoke at The Southern Festival of Books. Diaz is a literature and creative writing teacher at MIT, a 2012 National Book Award finalist, recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant,” and cofounder of Voices of Our Nation. In Bill Moyers’ December 28 interview with Diaz, “Rewriting the Story of America,” the author spoke of shifts—personal, life-changing ones, like being shown a library for the first time when he moved to America at the age of six—and national ones. Diaz discussed election results and “the story” he hopes President Obama tells in leading us from here:
No one was predicting the diversity of the vote. …Even the communities who came out to vote, I think, were shocked by their own numbers and by their own power…I think that a lot of folks have very poor sense of what's happening in this country on the ground. I mean, they're kind of all the way up here, whether it's age, class, institutional divisions. And they don't really have a real kind of panoramic or even a deep view of the real sort of granular shifts that have occurred in this country, that have been occurring…
I hope it would be a story that sort of is honest about the challenges that face us. I mean, listen, when's the last time as a nation we've been asked to sacrifice, really come together and sacrifice? It's been a long time, man. My nephews went to Iraq. My little brother's a military kid. He's marine combat veteran. I mean, we ask certain sectors of our community to sacrifice, but I think it's about time we start talking to each other like we're living in the same country... We've got to start thinking about us as a civic entity, as a civic project. Let's pull together. Let's each make some sacrifices. And let's see if we can get this thing together somewhere... I wish I would see a little progressive activity around immigration. I wish I could see some progressive activity around our students, around our schools…they only now noticed that my students are walking around with student loans on their heads, like, the size of the Himalayas? I mean, look, we got to do something about this. We can't have an entire generation, two generations mortgaged to the eyeballs, man. We've got to figure out a way to deal with student loans and the proliferation of these loans. That wouldn't be a bad place to start, you know? I mean, there are whole areas that I wouldn't mind seeing Obama put his stamp on.
Diaz says we are “a new country emerging that has been in the making for a long time.” Nashville’s Leon Berrios is also the New America of which Diaz speaks. Last spring the community organizer, Vanderbilt University Law School student, and band leader of Revolfusion, the first Hispanic band to win the Music City Corporate Challenge, took his song, “CARATA AL SR PRESIDENTE,” (video below) to Washington when he was named a “Champion for Change” as part of President Obama’s “Winning the Future” initiative. Berrios was selected as one of only twelve young Latino leaders in the US for a year-long national fellowship on community and economic development offered by the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders. Berrios was then invited to The White House to represent NALCAB in observance of Cesar Chavez Day. By Presidential Proclamation March 31 honors the migrant worker who founded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Chavez’s life work was based on nonviolence, tenacity, and what he called “the quality of the heart.” Berrios described attending the ceremony:
Such honor increased its relevance and impact in my life when I learned that among the nominees there were leaders that have been working for social and economic justice even before I was born. Listening to these leaders sharing their experiences, adventures, and admitting to their mistakes with such humbleness still resonates in my mind and will echo forever in it…. The biggest lesson I took from this is that creativity is an important component when organizing the community. I enjoyed each and every story on how Cesar Chavez was an emotionally smart person who would share and invite everyone to join in what he believed was right, in extraordinary innovative ways.
Utilizing not only his intellect, creativity, commitment and drive, but also hardships in his life, Berrios has been able to help others as well. He told me his story:
I grew up in Nicaragua during the Sandanista/Contra War. During this era I lived many things a child should not have to live and saw many things a child should not have to see, such as injustice, death, suffering and hunger. Yet this environment also provided the opportunity for me to learn incredible qualities that have shaped my life. This hardship inculcated solidarity, brotherhood and justice. Because of my exposure to the atrocities of war I became aware, at a very young age,that I needed to be in a position of empowerment, one that would not allow me to be a victim of injustice, abuse and mistreatment. This led to my study of law and justice. Through this process I then gained the tools to empower countless others as well.
I have always had a thirst for life. When I arrived in the US in 2006, I could not speak any English and had only $300 to my name, but I saw opportunities everywhere.
Two months after he arrived in the United States, Berrios became a volunteer with Tennessee Immigrants and Refugees Rights Coalition(TIRRC) where he uses his international experience and multiple languages(Spanish, French and Portuguese). He had graduated Suma Cum Laude with a law degree from the University of Central America with a thesis on Human Rights in State of Emergency. His extensive hands-on experience in Nicaragua with criminal, civil and labor law, as well as everything related to human rights made him a valuable member of Nashville’s Mayor’s offices’ Metro Action Commission as a representative of the community, the Governor’s offices’ Advisory Council of the 211 Tennessee Emergency Line, and a sought after speaker for agencies such as the Department of Human Services and Nashville Conflict Resolution Center.
The path has been both challenging and rewarding. In the past five years I have mastered English via the ELC program at Vanderbilt, was hired to work at Conexion Americas, the largest and most respected Latino organization in Tennessee. I became a proud citizen of the U.S., my wife and I bought our first house and our three children were born here. I also opened a small Capoeira (Brazilian Martial Art) school.
Though he couldn’t perform the song during the Champions of Change/Chavez ceremony, he sang it quietly as President Obama entered the room and is determined to get it before him in 2013. He says of the first term:
We, Latinos acknowledge that the President and Democrats had a difficult time trying to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation because of Republican opposition and the biggest proof of it is that 69% of our community voted for him once again; however, we are still waiting for some promises he made to us...
We Latinos know that we have a persuasive bargaining power that we can use in the benefit of our community.
And who is this community?
Diaz said on Moyer and Company that the answer is in a mindset held by José Martí, the revolutionary poet and hero of Cuba's independence from Spain: "The Martí mind is simply that, as much love as I have for my own group, I have for every other group. To take possessive investment in each others’ struggles."
I agree. Simply put, I believe hope for 2013 lies in Christ's words, an old and ever-new command: “To love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:28 (New International Version)
Lyrics from "AL CARATA SR PRESIDENTE"
I really want the entire continent to know
That beyond the border we are also human beings
There are Incas, Aztecs, Mayans - a really resilient nation
And that I am the son of the corn and that I come from Americas’s womb
No more, No more, No more discrimination.
No more unjust laws that poison the veins of our Nation.
I want you to pray this song with devotion
And may that heaven break out of compassion
Unity in diversity even though we are different.
I want you to think globally
And I want you to create your policies in an inclusive way
We are all survivors of war, hunger and misery
That is why refugees and asylees are part of the movement
No more discrimination, bad laws and politicization, let’s be the welcome nation the world used to know
To learn more about immigration issues (benefits, arbitrary/outdated visa caps separating families up to 20 years/weakening our workforce, bureaucratic backlogs leaving multitudes in limbo, workplace violations that recruit and exploit), see resources below: