Latinos in Memphis work to keep their culture alive and vibrant

When Victor Ortega comes home from work, he looks forward to seeing his son Derek. His wife Patricia Olivar said the family is a crucial part of the Latino culture because it is the nucleus of their society.

For Patti Olivar and Victor Ortega it was their dream to have a family of their own and to pass down their Latino culture here in Memphis. For Olivar, it was difficult to become pregnant. She and her husband tried to have a child, without success, for several years.

“A life without a family isn’t a life,” Ortega said. “We wanted to be parents.”

They decided to try in vitro fertilization and were successful on the first try. Now, their son Derek is six months old and is everything to them.

“My sense is my son and my wife,” Ortega said. “My life didn’t make sense before him [Derek].”

For Olivar and Ortega, the family is central to their Latino culture. Their family is a way for them to maintain their Latino identity.

According to Michael Duke, an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of Memphis, a person’s culture and identity are directly linked.

“They’re pretty inseparable,” Duke said. “The whole way that you perceive the world is part of your culture.”

According to Duke, someone’s language or customs are just an outward image of how they feel in their head.

“They way people speak, and the way people carry themselves reflects this internal set of ideas that people have with them, and most of these things are at an unconscious level,” Duke said.

According to Duke, culture is collective.

“As individuals we all have our own history, which shapes who we are and our identity,” Duke said. “But culture is different. It’s collective.”

It’s not always easy to look past national differences and come together to form this collective identity. Latinos come from all over Central America, South America and Spain. The Latino community is fairly new to Memphis and is trying to make its footprint here. Looking past the differences between nationalities can be the biggest hurdle when forming this collective identity, but it’s necessary for growth.

Finding similarities in one another is something that Latinos can use to share and relate with one another. At the same time, Duke said social classes or national identity can adversely draw distinctions between one another.

There are distinct differences between Latino countries, especially in their colloquialisms, popular foods or their favorite fútbol team.

“People from different states [Mexican states] or countries think, ‘Well we don’t have anything in common with each other,’” Duke said. “But now suddenly, they’re in the community where they have to form this new identity that is this broader definition of ‘Latino.’”

In terms of numbers, Duke said it’s important for Latinos to adopt this broader identity. This is important for the growing Latino community. However, the Hispanic population in Memphis is fairly new. According to Duke, because it’s fairly new to Memphis, maintaining this identity is slightly more difficult.

“Places like East Los Angeles or Oakland (California) had Latinos there for a long time,” Duke said. “So you have lots and lots of multi-generational institutions, churches, organizations and critically, Latinos who are citizens.”

Latino citizens are able to advocate and vote for what is best for their community. They are able to represent the Latino community in government offices and public positions. Duke said Memphis is not to that point yet.

“There is not a large number of [Latino] people [in Memphis] who are U.S. citizens, and so they’re excluded from that political process,” Duke said.

Centro Cultural in Memphis is an organization that meets at Caritas Village to help maintain the Latino culture in Memphis.

Margarita Sandino, a board member at Centro Cultural, said they promote this by offering free art, dance, music, literature and karate classes for the entire family.

“We want our children to know what their heritage is, and where they come from,” Sandino said.

Centro Cultural also hosts three exhibitions a year. They host local Latino artists and this year they had their first Tamale Fest.

“It was just like Barbeque Fest, except we had local Latino ladies and families make their own recipes, and then we judged them,” Sandino said.

Sandino said events like this help fundraise for the organization, since they’re not a non-profit yet. Centro Cultural is close to becoming a non-profit, which would allow the organization to grow even more and allow them to serve more people.

“These people are longing for their traditions, and most of them are undocumented, so they can’t go back [to their countries],” Sandino said. “So we want to provide that opportunity for them to get back to their roots, while also learning about other Latin American cultures.”


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About the Author

Anna Joy Batchelor

Anna Joy Batchelor speaks almost fluent Spanish and loves traveling. She recently returned home from spending her summer in Costa Rica. During her time away from school, Anna Joy has traveled to several Central American countries learning the language, absorbing the culture and working along-side people in those countries. Anna Joy had internships with the Memphis Tiger Network and with Life Choices. She had stories published in the Daily Helmsman and the Lone Grove Ledger in Lone Grove, Oklahoma. She grew up in Memphis and will graduate in December with a double major in Spanish and broadcast journalism.

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