In western Nebraska, old-timers work to keep heritage from fading among U.S.-born Latinos

(Photo by Luis Peon-Casanova) Bianka Tovar adjusts her yellow skirt during a recent Mexican baile rehearsal, while Myah Villafranca (from left to right0, Jackie Martinez and Angelina Jurado watch.

(Photo by Luis Peon-Casanova) Bianka Tovar adjusts her yellow skirt during a recent Mexican baile rehearsal, while Myah Villafranca (from left to right0, Jackie Martinez and Angelina Jurado watch.

By Bobby Caina Calvan | The Heartland Project

We all know that the Latino population is growing rapidly. But many of us don’t realize that most of that growth is not from the arrival of new immigrants – but from new generations of Latinos born in the United States.

The share of Hispanics who are immigrants is declining, according to the Pew Research Center. Just a third of Hispanics of Mexican descent were foreign born.

According to Pew, the share of foreign-born Hispanics now stands at 36 percent, down from 40 percent.

Chabella Guzman, a reporter at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, is among those of Latino descent who was born in the United States. There are many others like her across Nebraska.

Guzman wanted to explore a story on how far some have gotten away from their ancestral roots. Guzman said some Latinos could no longer speak Spanish or had limited fluency – herself included. She noticed how some Anglicized the pronunciations of their Hispanic surnames.

As she did her reporting, the focus of the story began to shift. Instead of writing about how some folks were seemingly losing their culture, she decided to focus on how some were trying to hold on to their heritage.

The result was a story that appeared this past Sunday on the front page of her paper’s lifestyles section. Coincidentally, Guzman’s story appears smack in the middle of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Read the story in the Scottsbluff Star-Herald

Not fading away: Latino culture still revolves around traditional practice

A colleague at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Professor Luis Peon-Casanova, accompanied me to Scottsbluff several months ago. He shot a few pictures and produced a video of a Mexican dance group, which is part of the online package.

Sunday’s story is the first of a multistory collaboration with the Star-Herald. In the coming months, The Heartland Project will be producing a story on the role of spirituality in confronting the challenges facing the Lakota at Whiteclay and Pineridge.

The collaboration with the Star-Herald began with a conversation last spring with the paper’s editor, Steve Frederick, while attending the annual convention of the Nebraska Press Association.

Soon after, I was in touch with the paper’s assistant editor, Bart Schaneman, who gave his enthusiastic support. Earlier this year, he wrote a column about the project.

The city of Scottsbluff is located in Nebraska’s Panhandle, about a six-hour drive from Lincoln, the state capital. It is an ethnically diverse community of 15,000. About a third of the city are residents of color, much of it comprised of folks with Latino heritage. (Nebraska as a whole is about 80 percent white and about 10 percent Latino.)

According to Guzman, many of western Nebraska’s early Latino settlers worked in the surrounding fields of sugar beets.

Guzman’s story quotes Mary Ann Shockley, who teaches traditional Mexican dance. She wonders what will become of the old ways as American-born Latinos move further from their roots – the language, old family recipes, the dances and the traditions handed down from the generations before.

People like Shockley are trying hard to preserve their heritage. It’s a challenge, she concedes, but an important mission that she and others say must be done.

Guzman is doing her part, albeit as a journalist bringing attention to the challenges facing her community.