I found El Centro months before moving here. It was ubiquitous in many a job search given my criteria and clearly a prominent--if not preeminent--center for the Latino community in King County. I got into a volunteer orientation about two weeks after arriving, and since that first meeting became more than convinced that I was going to spend much time there.
The subtitle of the organization is "The Center for People of All Races", which can seem a bit incongruent with the name itself. Nonetheless, I have found this to be true in my one day, four hour shift volunteering with the seniors and homeless meals program. Here are some of the moments that I remember:
A woman of Asian heritage sitting with her friends brought me a piece of bread while I was signing in those arriving for lunch. Her name was Li Bueno. Lunch had not been served yet, so this bread must have been from home. I thanked her.
Lotería is a like a Latin bingo. It's simple and social. The main difference has to do with the "numbers". In lotería, the cards have household objects, fruits, caricatures, musical instruments, or the moon on them. I lead a couple of the rounds. As leader you call out the card that is drawn in Spanish and English. Everybody helps each other hear and find the right spot that was called. There is a bit of banter in between the leader and players, too. So when I called "El Catrín" ("The Gentleman", as Raquel translated it in an earlier round), several of the women called back at me. "Eres tú, Aaron!" ("That's you, Aaron!"). "Nooooo, I don't smoke!" The next card was "La Dama". "This one's me!" They all laughed.
There is more than one concerning card in lotería for the nature of the caricature. Here's the most difficult one.
While El Centro program director Raquel was leading the first round, I was paying close attention to the translations and was already anticipating how she might articulate this particular image. I was thinking to myself whether I would want to play this game at all because of the weight of some of the racial tone-deafness contained in some of these images. Raquel translated it as "The Dancer", which...ok that's a pretty flat way to skirt racism. Is that a dancer? Ok. Yeah, I guess it could be that. It's just not called "The Dancer" or anything close in Spanish.
Lunch is held in a room full of seven circular tables with eight chairs each. After serving everybody, I was given a plate to sit down with. I can't say what the conversations were like in the rest of the groups or what their like on any other day at El Centro, but this table I sat at was eye-opening. You might not think a Latino man and a black woman have much to talk about, but get on the subject of poverty, equal treatment, and social justice and they're knee deep in commonality--at least that's what I observed at the table. They spoke of their experiences in hospitals, state offices, and other service-oriented environments. The rest of the table gave consenting head nods if not words. She even addressed me as a person who probably doesn't suffer much of what they are discussing. She wasn't wrong, and I actually appreciated her pointing it out. If we are willing to use the words "under-privileged" to describe sectors of the society, why do we balk at calling ourselves "privileged"? What's clear is that class struggle, race, and equality are not #ferguson conversations. They are everywhere. These things were cut short by a hard right turn to Kennedy assassination theories. Made me think about being in my 60s and discussing 9/11 around a table where a kid who's only read about it in history books is rolling his eyes at how damn old we all are.
Here is a statement of intent:
I will blog about these times. There is richness in them. For years, I've been teaching Service Learning courses in which I instructed students in how to analyze and decode their volunteer experiences to extract meaning from them. I need to do this myself as well if I am planning on not just helping but serving. To serve is to receive as much as you give. Helping happens when one person has power and another does not; service happens within a relationship of equals, where no power or privilege dynamic is in play. It's time I take these ideas and apply them to my own volunteering to see what I can unearth.