Monday, 06 March 2017 21:48

Growing up immersed in diversity

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By Atticus Agustin

In today’s tumultuous socio-political climate, diversity is at the forefront of political discussions. It can create discomfort for those with power as well as those without. Who wants to live with such a complicated subject in their head all the time? As someone who is deeply interested in linguistics and political science, and who was raised in diverse west Salt Lake City neighborhoods, I do!

Growing up here left a permanent impression on me. As I walked through various west-side neighborhoods, I heard a wide-range of languages: Somali, Kawa, Hmong, Croatian, Navajo, Farsi, etc. I have managed to learn a few phrases and words from each language just by talking to speakers of those languages.

I am also part of that diversity. I am second generation Mexican, so I am perfectly fluent in Spanish, and some French. My religious affiliation isn’t in line with the dominant LDS faith to further cement that diversity; I identify as reform Jew. A Mexican Jew is very much a 180-degree-turn from a blonde, blue-eyed Latter Day Saint.

Everyone, including other Mexicans, has a hard time grappling with the fact that there exists such a thing – a Mexican Jew. But the reality is that Jews have been living in Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and California since the sixteenth century. It is believed that several Jews arrived on Hernan Cortes’ ships in Veracruz and began working their way up to the Southwestern United States. Most of them being genetically Sephardim, meaning they can trace their lineage from Spain or North Africa.

If you look closely at the numbers, there’s not only an ethnic diversity in our neighborhoods, but also a religious one.

There is a sizeable Muslim community in Salt Lake City as well as Buddhists and Hindus. My elementary, junior high, and high schools were extremely diverse. My Tibetan classmate at Franklin Elementary once explained how Imperialist China made Tibet subordinate. I even learned a Tibetan word while we were at it – desho, meaning “come here.” A different classmate once joked that Rose Park has “every race and language known to humankind.” My sixth grade class memorized a song in Maori. I can still sing it.

Everyone on my street in Poplar Grove knew about diversity - not only concerning race and language, but socioeconomic position, culture and attitudes as well. My next-door neighbors in my elementary years were an alternative lesbian couple who cooked, thought, and acted in alien ways, but I was intrigued with their lifestyle.

Another neighbor once stopped me as I rode my bicycle to ask me the most efficient way to say “car leak” in Spanish (mi auto gotea). I assumed they were on their way to the local auto shop where the mechanics speak Spanish.

I didn’t need to be taught diversity growing up, because I was surrounded by it. Once, during a discussion about Utah Native Americans, I said “Oh, the Indians.” My wonderful neighbor, who was single and lesbian, added that “everyone is an Indian from somewhere.” I understood it to mean that every nationality has some original or indigenous beginning, and that the word “Indian” doesn’t just mean indigenous people of this continent.

Diversity is a virtue. I’ve heard many stories of how things are thought, said and done around the world. While some of the best conversations I’ve had with Croatians, Somalis, lesbians, Asians, and Latin Americans were about politics and language, observing and talking about the diverse customs on the west side has also made me an unofficial cultural anthropologist.

Some of my best encounters with diversity occurred while I rode my bike. I once rode down Redwood Road and stopped at the tiny Somali Mart and found some of the best oblong-shaped cookies I’ve ever had. Another bike trek took me to Cottonwood Park (just off of Redwood Road and 350 North) where the Karen community was performing from far away what looked like a ceremonial dance, everyone lined-up in perfect columns and rows, prancing back and forth, left and right to the beat of a drummer. I regret not sticking around to watch the rest.

Many outsiders who visit Salt Lake City don’t usually think of this city as a potpourri of different races and faiths unless you’re venturing to the west side. This area hasn’t been afforded the positive image that I think it deserves, but in my opinion, people who don’t hang out here are really missing out on something special.