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A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES : Community Essay : Language Was ‘My Gateway’ to Understanding : Race: If blacks and Latinos can’t communicate, they won’t be able to bridge the cultural gap when their interests merge.

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For the past two years I have worked as a volunteer at the Paul Robeson Community Center in South-Central Los Angeles. The center is located in a neighborhood that was predominantly African-American a few years ago.

Today, more than half the residents are Latino, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The program teaches immigrants English-language skills to make them eligible for amnesty protection.

I quickly learned that to be effective, I would have to expand my Spanish vocabulary to include more than buenas dias and adios. It was not easy. I had not spoken a word of Spanish since high school more than 20 years ago. Like most African-Americans, and indeed most Americans, I was resistant to foreign languages.

After several weeks of working with a tutor, I began to master some basics. The students were encouraging and supportive. They seemed genuinely delighted that I had taken an interest in their language. I wasn’t content, however, to mouth a few Spanish words and phrases.

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The language also served as my gateway to learn more about the culture and customs of my students. Like most African-Americans, I thought of racial conflict solely as a black and white problem. I now realize it is not so simple.

Latinos not only suffered the same poverty and racial discrimination as blacks, they also confronted language and cultural barriers. Listening to the students, I came to better understand the difficult and painful adjustment problems they faced trying to work and live in the United States.

But it worked both ways. Some of the students became curious about me. They asked about my family and my work. When they found out that I am a writer, they wanted to read my books and articles. This gave me a chance to talk with them about the plight of African-Americans. They knew as little about black culture and history as I did about theirs.

We spent hours discussing issues and problems that confronted blacks and Latinos--often in English and Spanish. By making the effort to understand each other, we slowly bridged the gap of misunderstanding and mistrust that divide Latinos and African-Americans.

Other blacks have now begun to study Spanish to increase their understanding of Latino culture. At UCLA, there is a special project in which selected African-American students and community workers are taught Spanish by Latino students. The California Assn. of Real Estate Brokers, a black Realtors group, holds weekly Spanish classes for its brokers and salespeople. And several friends and acquaintances have told me that they plan to enroll in Spanish classes.

They understand the changing realities. Latinos have surpassed whites in population in Los Angeles. At the current growth rate, Latinos will displace blacks as the largest minority in America by the year 2010. But it’s not just the numbers. Like blacks, many Latinos have prospered in the professions and business and have deepened their influence within both political parties.

The clash between Latinos and African-Americans on the issues of immigration, political representation and bilingual education are as intense as those between blacks and whites over racism. Each side claims that gains made by the other in securing jobs, political appointments and education programs will result in losses for their group.

But there are also common concerns. Government cutbacks in job and social programs have wreaked havoc on the black and Latino poor. Both have a vital interest in the fight for low-cost housing, quality education, health care, police protection and efficient city services. In some South-Central Los Angeles neighborhoods, community groups have tenuously bridged the culture and language gap and have joined forces to protest crime, school and housing deterioration.

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African-Americans and Latinos are finding that the struggle for power and recognition will be long and difficult. On some issues we will be allies; on others we will go it alone. But none of this will matter much, if blacks and Latinos cannot communicate. For me, Spanish broke down the barriers. It can do the same for other African-Americans. Buenas suerte.


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