Conversaciones to Launch a Latino/Hispanic Initiative


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The National Trust for Historic Preservation has now hosted four conversaciones with Latinos and Hispanics across the country—in New York City (at El Museo del Barrio), Los Angeles (El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument), New Mexico (National Hispanic Cultural Center), and Austin (National Preservation Conference). Our National Trust familia (Latino Board members, Advisors, staff, Statewide and Local Partners) identified a list of invitees (architects, community leaders, students) seeking a balance of those who are already sympathetic to preservation and those with the greatest potential to become a part of the preservation movement. Depending on location, the sessions ran from two to six hours, attracting from 25 to 60 participants.

During these gatherings we identified the goal of preserving Latino architectural and cultural heritage and the objective of determining how we can all work together to save places that matter to Hispanics. The sessions were driven by the following questions: What approach should preservation take in engaging Latino/Hispanic communities? And what should the National Trust’s Latino/Hispanic Initiative be?

Hispanics are not a monolithic people. Many nations, races, and socio-economic groups compose the communities that are referred to as Latino or Hispanic. Not all the people who identify with this race/ethnicity speak Spanish. Some trace their roots to the original Spanish settlers of the New World. Their descendents were here before the United States was established. Rejecting Spanish colonialism, others identify more with the original indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, or Asian workers and indentured servants. Others’ families came to this country during more recent waves of immigration.

Is it Latino or Hispanic? You probably want an easy answer, but no name has yet been agreed upon. Some refer to themselves as Latina/o and others Hispanic. Others say they are Latin American or Hispanic American. Some feel more connected with their national (“Salvadoreño”), state, (“chihuahuense”), or local (“East Side”) identity and reject an all-encompassing term. Better to get to know individuals to find out their preferences.

I may be a gringa, but I come to this work as an ally with great respect for the individuals who have granted me entry into their communities. Establishing relationships by building trust has been key to any successes in engagement. I share my observations from these meetings in the spirit of our collective effort to preserve Latino cultural heritage and historic places.

Historic Preservation Shortcomings: The general sentiment was that the discourse on American history has largely ignored Latino contributions. This privileging of some sites over others often manifested itself in the destruction of places associated with Latinos’ past. With this loss of physical places, the culture (language, food, religion, family structure, music, dance) and stories are the only remnants of this history. This could be why many people attach greater value to the traditions than to the places. Acknowledging those places that no longer exist, adding a Latino layer to the larger narrative of place that has been excluded from interpretations, redefining historic preservation, and rewriting designation criteria to include intangible cultural significance were identified as ways preservation can better serve Latino heritage preservation.

Inclusion in the Formal Process of Preservation: Hispanics have largely preserved their culture, communities, and spaces when they could. But when their traditional places have been used for revitalization efforts by outsiders, it has often led to gentrification which displaces Hispanic communities. To avoid the pickling or canning of Latino culture, “preservation” needs to be rebranded as culturally friendly and community oriented. Heritage tourism initiatives can be used to promote understanding, not just commercial exploitation, of culture as long as community members are consulted and included in the planning process. An organizational structure with visible Hispanic leadership ensures that there isn’t just a seat but also a voice at the table.

Outreach to Communities: Saving places that matter to Hispanic people corrects false history and empowers communities. Participants wanted to share what was learned during the conversaciones with their communities. To further the preservation ethic, the community organizers who have often pushed for most of the preservation that has taken place in Latino communities could be tapped. As well as inventorying places of significance, information about current efforts (success stories) and organizations should be documented and archived. Community workshops (hands-on and informational) are also needed. Further research and oral histories with older generations could engage youth, teachers, and businesses. Including young people is imperative; they not only continue the struggle but make it sustainable.

Transformative Development of Organizations and Staff: Through partnerships, other organizations can be educated about the value and meaning of places that matter to Latinos. Additionally, the preservation movement can help organizations concerned with these cultural places to increase their internal capacity through training on fundraising and resource development.

Continuing the Conversation: A one-time deal was not enough. The core group of conversación attendees would be strengthened through further networking (communication of parallel initiatives, sharing of advisors and events, etc). Future conversaciones on both a local and a national level could integrate additional players. Leaders identified and developed through this effort could advocate for these interests, and also raise Latino visibility by becoming involved with the boards of civic organizations and preservation groups.

As much as we have accomplished so far, our work has only begun. We are in the planning stages for hosting conversaciones in Chicago, Kansas City, and Miami. By reaching out to each of the National Trust’s six regions, we hope to get a cross-section of this demographic’s diversity. More of the data from these meetings will be shared as this initiative develops.