Back when I first moved here, in 1966, the Latino population was just 8% —and we didn’t even call ourselves Latino back then. Our community was close, and there were only about five of us in all my class at Contra Costa College. We just coalesced. Over the years, this community has changed shape, and we have become more separate than we were back then.
Throughout college, we began having more Chicanos (which is what we were called back then) coming to college, more getting educated, and then more getting into the community. I think that I was one of the first Chicanos at the time —along with my friend Gonzalo Rucobo—to earn a degree.
Then we became active in the community though the auspices of the United Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, an organization that was made up by Chicano leaders and Mexican American leaders who had very little formal education, but were very articulate. They all came together with their different social, political, religious, educational, and cultural backgrounds. That unity became the driving force in the community back in the 1960’s and 70’s. We used to get together for social functions, and we all kind of knew each other. Culturally we were very similar, and there was a lot of connection in the community.
Moving into the 1990’s, we began to have a more diverse Latino community. We started calling it “Latino”, because it was more now than Mexican and Mexican Americans. We started having a lot of people from Central America and South America. As a result, the political power that had been in Richmond since the beginning in the 70’s and 80’s started dying out. People became nationalistic. People started talking more about how things were back home in Mexico or Central America. They were more concerned about their political issues in their native countries than what was happening here.
Interestingly, most of the people who were coming from South America in those days tended to be highly educated and with high degrees. Many who came here, spoke very little English, and so some found themselves with college degrees and doing very menial work here. As time went on, because of this separation in the community, the political power of the Latino community dissipated. We began to lose influence in the city government,
I eventually became a member of the Richmond City council, where I served as the first and only Latino on the council. Throughout my tenure I found myself educating a lot of my colleagues. They wanted to know a lot about our culture, and because of that I convinced my council to let me organize Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Civic Center. That became an education tool for the community outside of the Latino community. They saw the dancing and the different kinds of music, food, and the pride that was there. At that time we started having a reintegration of the different Latino cultures.
At the same time, our population has grown. The Latino population was 8% back in the 60’s, and today we are at 39% of the population of Richmond. However, we now are again to the point where we don’t always talk with each other. We tend to be nationalistic again, but I would like to move past that and have a broader unity in the community. But it will take work from everyone to achieve this.
Earlier I mentioned Gonzalo Rucobo, my colleague. Unfortunately he passed away in the 2000’s of cancer, but his son, Gonzalo Rucobo, Jr., has taken the reigns and now he is the director of the Bay Area Peace Keepers. They just opened a center on 23rd Street and Maricopa Avenue in Richmond.
He is working to keep the peace in the Latino community among our youth. In recent years we have had turf wars, and through Gonzalo Jr.’s efforts, and some efforts of some of the older people, that fighting has gone away. Now older people put in their interest into classic cars, low riders —there is a huge group of Latinos doing that —myself included. I have my classic car, and as one of the co-founders of the Cinco de Mayo parade, I am charged with bringing in the classic cars and the low riders. And I always have my car in the parade. So that’s one way of coalescing. As I’ve been going to rallies and cruises with these cars, I notice that the different Latino backgrounds are becoming more integrated.
There are many different ways for us to come together —through appreciating our shared heritage, our struggles, and realizing that what we can do together is much greater than if we are all doing it separately. If people in the Latino community can realize that though we may have different dialects, we all speak a very similar language, and that that shared experience is just the beginning. From there we can branch out and begin to work and support each other as a larger community and network.
We know that when we use the term “Latino”, we know that we have roots that go all the way back to Europe and, of course, the mixture of the indigenous peoples. There is also a large mixture of Africans, Asians, indigenous people, and Spaniards —and they are also part of the Latino culture. We are a large and diverse network —one that needs everyone to stand and support each other.