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Juan Gonzalez, journalist and news show co-host, is Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month's featured speaker

Juan Gonzalez, columnist with the New York Daily News and co-host of ‘Democracy Now!’, is the keynote speaker at Friday’s panel discussion for Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month.

CARBONDALE — In the 19th century, Latinos were instrumental in the cattle industry in Texas, copper mining in Arizona and sheep-herding in New Mexico, said Juan Gonzalez, a columnist with the New York Daily News and co-host of "Democracy Now!" news show. But their contributions were not noted in Westerns, those movies about American's great Western front, Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez plans to share these contributions, and others, as keynote speaker at Friday evening's Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month panel discussion at Southern Illinois University. That panel discussion, titled "Citizenship, Solidarity and the Latino Quest for Belonging," will be 5-7 p.m. Friday at the SIU School of Law Auditorium. In addition to Gonzalez, the two other panelists are SIU professors Angela Aguayo, from the School of Mass Communications and Arts, and Cindy Galway Buys, from the SIU School of Law.

A reception is scheduled for 4 p.m. before the panel discussion; both events are free and open to the public. The Hispanic/Latino Resource Center and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute are co-sponsoring this event.

Gonzalez, 68, noted that it was Mexicans who helped to build King Ranch, a cattle ranch started in 1853 in Texas. According to the ranch's website, King Ranch now covers 825,000 acres, "more land than the state of Rhode Island."

"The King Ranch ... was largely staffed by Mexican vaqueros … but you never see that in the movies," said Gonzalez, who was born in Puerto Rico and came as a child to this country with his family. "The movies represent a different image of the West than what it actually was."

In addition to talking about past contributions, Gonzalez said he plans to talk about the continued contributions of Latinos and Hispanics. On a recent visit to Fayetteville, Arkansas, he heard how Hispanics are a growing part of that workforce and help keep the economy rolling.

Some issues facing Latinos today are access to and affordability of higher education and health care for undocumented people and immigration concerns.

He noted that other immigrant groups seemed to experience a backlash. In the 1840s, it was a backlash against the Irish; in the 1890s and the 1900s, it was the Italians and the Russian Jews; and in 1882, Congress passed, and the president signed, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a 10-year moratorium on immigrants from China.

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Gonzalez said he has ideas about reforming the country's immigration policy, adopted in 1965, which puts a cap of 20,000 immigrants from any one country. He said he would revamp the law to allow more people to immigrate from such countries as Mexico, Guatemala and the Phillipines, for instance, and adjust that figure lower for countries that traditionally have fewer people trying to immigrate here.

Rene Francisco Poitevin, coordinator of the Hispanic/Latino Resource Center, has never met Gonzalez, but sais he uses the author's book, "Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America" in one of his classes.

Gonzalez, who grew up in New York City and graduated from Columbia University, is a past president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

"Mr. Gonzalez is now one of the foremost political and social commentators in the U.S.," Poitevin said. "For me, what I want to get out of this event is to create a space for dialogue in Carbondale and Southern Illinois … So, I think this is great opportunity for us to have a serious conversation.”

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Reporter

Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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