I spent my summers as a kid working on Mike and Jean’s Berry Farm with about 200 migrant workers. Driving tractors in a cucumber field, I was the lone white girl amongst a sea of brown faces. I was called “weda,” whistled at, joked about, talked about in Spanish in words I couldn’t understand; for a few weeks I got a taste of what it was like to be in the racial minority.

It wasn’t a great feeling. But I needed the job and I began to make attempts to improve my Spanish. I kept my head down and did my job, which slowly earned me some respect. And as the summer progressed, my Spanish improved and this helped my relationships improve with the crew. They also started to learn some English. By the end of each summer, we had broken through some of the barriers and worked together well. After several summers, many of them became my friends.

But breaking these barriers is something I still work on today. It’s no secret that I am a bleeding-heart liberal. And that’s why I am still shocked at the fact that I carry my own prejudices, frustrations and stereotypes when it comes to the Latino community. As a teacher, I have seen students who were brought here by their parents from Mexico and struggled to succeed. I have Latino friends. I’m a big supporter of things like the “Dream Act.” The bleeding heart in me wants to help everyone succeed no matter what the circumstances. But I also understand that at a certain point, it’s reasonable to expect that America can not make room for everyone forever. And I’ll admit that I get frustrated at people in my own community who seem to be making little or no attempt to speak a single word of English. I think there is no excuse for that; it makes relationship building impossible.

Finding the happy medium is daunting.

Cries of “Go back to Mexico!”and “Speak English!” from people are mean, rude and a bad example for our kids. It’s important to try to understand where that frustration comes from so we can address it. A person making those comments likely has no relationship with anyone of Hispanic origin, is frustrated by the communication breakdown and doesn’t have an understanding of what is happening in the Latino community. Just like on the farm, when efforts are made on both sides to communicate, relationships improve. And improving relationships brings unity. Everyone wins. So it’s fair to admit frustration, but turning that frustration into positive change is what will help this community most.

Recently, members of Adelantes Mujeres bravely started telling their stories in the News-Times. And this was the first time I had publicly seen the Latino community reach out to tell their story and educate the rest of us about why they so desperately want to be United States citizens. And I thought, “Finally!” because it is only from that community that those stories can be told. And for those of us who might assume no one is learning English, they might not realize — for instance — that people gather at Centro Cultural in Cornelius on their own time to take English classes. That is one of many examples of efforts being made. But if we don’t hear these stories, we are left to assume no one is trying to bridge that gap.

Add in the difficulty of trying to talk about this without being politically incorrect and we get bogged down; even writing this article was a challenge. I made sure to get feedback from a white friend of mine and a Latino friend. I wasn’t even sure I could say “white friend” without offending someone. I had to ask one of my friends if it was okay to say “Mexican “ or “Latino” instead of “Hispanic.” She said it depends on the audience, but she said many in the Latino community prefer “Latino.” I didn’t know that, but I was glad to know it. All I had to do was ask. And I personally don’t mind addressing this issue because I am OK with admitting my frustration and prejudices — even if I wish I didn’t have any at all!

So as a “weda” (blond haired, white girl), I encourage the Latino community to be even more vocal. Increase efforts to learn English. Tell their stories. Forge relationships with people of other races (mostly white people!) in their communities to help us understand the struggles and the love you have for the community we all live in. Just like I had to make the extra effort to fit in at the berry field, the members of the Latino community need to make a larger effort to include themselves. Be more visible!  Reach out more often and with more urgency! I think that most of our community is ready to listen.

Kristy Kottkey teaches a class at the Hillsboro Online Academy and is a substitute in the Hillsboro School District. She lives in Forest Grove.

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