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It wasn’t the most flattering comparison.
Shayla Rivera, the keynote speaker at Bowling Green State University’s 19th annual Latino Issues Conference, compared the 200 Latino youths seated in front of her to “fleas.”
“What happens when you catch a flea and put it in a jar?” Ms. Rivera asked the slightly befuddled audience. “When you put a lid on the jar, the fleas will keep jumping up and hit the lid. But, after two or three days, they’ll stop jumping so high. If you let them out, they’ll still never jump higher.
“That’s what we do,” she continued. “We have been conditioned in many ways to jump only as high as we’re told we’re supposed to.”
The theme of the conference was “Refining the Latino/Latina Image in Today’s Society.” The message to the mostly high school and college audience was to define themselves and not be limited by other people’s stereotypes of what Latinos can and cannot do.
Ms. Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, worked as a NASA rocket scientist for seven years before she decided to become a full-time motivational speaker and comedian in 1993. She pointed to herself as evidence that, with hard work and determination, anybody can achieve his or her dream.
“That lid is not on the jar any more,” she said. “You are free to jump as high as you want.”
Ms. Rivera met privately with about 100 high school students and tried to help them set goals and strategies to meet them.
When one student told her his goal was “to make a lot of money,” she challenged him to explain how he would achieve tha dream. After several moments, and a little prompting, he said that he could start a business.
Several Latino BGSU students also presented workshops for high school students that focused on the need for positive role models and ways to become strong leaders.
Sophomores Jonathan Sabina, 18; Emilia Durand, 19; Daniel Medendorp, 18, and freshman Maritza Castro, 18, led the workshops.
“I think they made some very valid points,” said 15-year-old Marcus Johnson, a ninth grader at Toledo’s Start High School, who attended the workshop. “I need to be patient with people and let others go at their own pace.”
Marcus, who says he’s very good at math, said he often gets frustrated with classmates who can’t keep up.
Workshops for college students included a presentation from David Martinez, who spoke about the award-winning documentary Fuerza that he and three fellow students at Goshen College produced in 2006 about the impact of Mexico-United States emigration on both the town of Goshen, Ind., and the Mexican city of Apan.
Other workshops focused on barriers that illegal immigrant youth face in pursuing higher education and how homophobia in the Latino community is becoming less prominent.
BGSU sophomore Jay Torres, 18, credits the attitude change to a younger generation of Latinos who don’t share their parents’ prejudices. Many also are starting to realize issues such as marriage equality affect them.
“An estimated 200,000 [illegal] immigrants in the United States identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bi-[sexual], or transgender,” said Ms. Torres, who spoke about the issue during a discussion about race and identity. “Recent polls show that 60 percent of Hispanics support marriage equality. The Hispanic community is starting to come around.”
The university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Latino Student Union sponsored the program.
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.