Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 29, 2006

E pluribus unum

Last week was Community Cultural Harmony Week in Manhattan, and it was crammed full of activities to help broaden our horizons and celebrate the diversity of our society. The theme was "E Pluribus Unum," the Latin phrase that appears on all our coins and means "out of many, one."

Monday was Constitution Day, commemorating the adoption of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I escorted two people from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who were at K-State to encourage journalism students in my department to work and study in their country. While they were here, I took them to a performance by the Cuban drum group, "Manos," in the K-State Student Union Little Theatre. We sat on the front row, up close and personal. The Latin music with its strong beat made it difficult to resist clapping and stomping my feet - an urge I eventually surrendered to. It wasn't long before I felt like dancing. Almost as if on cue, a couple of band members came out to the audience and pulled a few of us to our feet.

Although I had been exposed to and grew to love such unbridled enthusiasm when I lived in Latin America, I could tell that some audience members were uncomfortable with it. Many people sat with their arms crossed, almost refusing to join in the fun.

"Ah," I thought. "This is outside their comfort zone."

On Thursday, Clara Reyes, the publisher of Dos Mundos (Two Worlds), a bilingual newspaper in Kansas City, spoke about the difficulties she had adjusting to life in the United States when she came here from Mexico as a young woman more than 40 years ago. At that time, even little things - like cashing a check or knowing how to maneuver through our grocery stores - were frustrating to her because she didn't know the language and didn't understand our fast-paced society. So, although she had been trained as a dentist in Mexico, she decided to start a newspaper to help other immigrants adjust to their new life.

She began the newspaper in the basement of her family's home and quickly discovered that some store owners didn't understand how they would benefit by advertising in her publication.

When she visited a grocery store, the owner said, "I don't sell the food that you people eat. I don't have tacos, tortillas and frijoles."

Clara told him that, although Mexicans do eat those things, they also eat chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, milk and all the other products that other people do.

When she visited a clothing store, the manager said, "My store doesn't carry white pantsuits and big straw hats that you people wear."

Again, Clara explained that "her people" normally wear suits, ties, blouses, shirts, pants and other items that his other customers do.

Those stores now run large ads in her newspaper, a newspaper that celebrated its 25th anniversary just a month ago.

As I listened to Clara, the experience at the Cuban dance performance came to mind and it made me reflect on one of the week's themes - that it's only when people move beyond what they're accustomed to that they begin to understand and appreciate people who are different from themselves. Only by venturing into uncharted territory do people learn to understand others and separate what is true and what is a stereotype.

Our nation has often been called a melting pot, but I don't think that is the proper metaphor. To melt is to merge and become identical to our neighbors. Instead, we become tightly stitched together by a common language, events, goals and experiences, yet enjoy identifying with and keeping alive aspects of our different heritages. First and foremost, I'm a U.S. citizen. But I also think of myself as being Swedish and Scot-Irish. Husband Art identifies with his German, Welsh and "Yankee" ancestry.

Perhaps it is better to think of our country as a quilt - many pieces that make one - E pluribus unum.

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