Ray Suarez, host of the Al Jazeera America Daily Program inside story, the former host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation and PBS’s The News Hour, and a long-standing member of the Washington press corps is well-known for his expertise on quintessentially American issues including politics, demographics, race, and religion. Ray Suarez has released several critically acclaimed books, including Latino Americans: The 500 Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation, which puts forth that Americans need to shift our thought paradigm from one that assumes we have always been a nation of European descendants to acknowledging that we are “a continent size country that has been multicultural from day one.”
Megan Hayes: Ray Suarez is the host of the Al Jazeera America Daily Program inside story, the former host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation and PBS’s The News Hour. Mr. Suarez recently served as host of Destination Casablanca on HITN one of the most popular Spanish language channels in the country. A longstanding member of the Washington press corps, he is well known for his expertise on quintessentially American issues, including politics, demographics, race and religion. From 2009 to 2013 he covered the global health beat for The News Hour, traveling the world to bring back the news of severe health threats and steady progress against some of the world’s most dangerous diseases. Ray Suarez has also released several critically acclaimed books, most recently, Latino Americans: The 500 Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation, which was a companion volume to a six-hour PBS series of the same name. The piece puts forth that as a nation, we need to shift our thought paradigm from one that assumes we have always been a nation of European descendants to acknowledging that we are “a continent size country that has been multicultural from day one.” Mr. Suarez is on our campus today as the keynote speaker for the fourth annual UNC Hispanic-Latino Forum, which is an event that brings together people from across the 16 campuses of the North Carolina system to discuss relevant issues facing our Latino communities and their impact on higher education. Mr. Ray Suarez, welcome to SoundAffect.
Ray Suarez: Great to be here.
MH: On the SoundAffect podcast, we have conversations with smart people about things that are going on in our world and how we at Appalachian are affected by them, but also how we can affect them. I’d like to begin by asking you a question about race relations, because on our campus we continue to have discussions about race, and privilege, and building a multicultural community that values diversity. Many of these conversations have been taking place through the lens of the National Black Lives matter movement; which makes a lot of sense for us right now because it’s an historical conversation for our historically very homogenous university in rural North Carolina. As a state institution, most of our students come from North Carolina - and in North Carolina the black population is larger than the Latino-Hispanic populations. We know our state’s demographic makes up is changing rapidly. We see this happening in Boone, and across our state North Carolina’s rate of Hispanic growth is the sixth fastest in the nation. How do you see this impacting the conversations that we might begin having as a college community in the future?
RS: Well I think for a lot of the country, the anxiety around cultural change that you hear right now in this moment, and certainly in the still young Republican campaign for the white house, comes from the fact that a lot of the country never had an Ellis Island moment. They never had a time when immigrants were pouring in all at once, changing things around and changing the assumptions the way the Northeast has had to deal with immigration, as well as Florida and the West Coast, for generations. If you look at the states of the old confederacy they were the most heavily native-born states of the union, because for the most part of the 20th century when Italians and Jews from the Tsarist Empire, and the Irish were coming into Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Chicago. They weren’t coming to Huntsville, Lumberton and Jacksonville and places like that. They just weren’t. Finally, in the 21st century, because of the economic dynamism of the south and the creation of jobs, that went on in a very healthy way, even as it was flagging in other parts of the country. When you go to a place like Dalton, Georgia, the rug capital of the United States, that small city is now more than half Latino. North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia all have - or will soon have - close to a million Latino residents by the 2020 census. This is a new thing… wanting people to put signs that say “empujar” rather than just “push” on the back door of the bus. That’s a new thing to be handled here. Press “two for Spanish” when you’re on an 800 number, that’s a new thing for here, and I wish I could say that everyone was handling it beautifully and we were just moving along, but we’re not. Every place has their growing pains going through this, it’s just that the South is having it a century later than everybody else.
MH: Can you talk about why it’s important that Appalachian, and all colleges, increase the number of black and brown graduates?
RS: We want this to be a wealthy country in 2030, 2040 and 2050. Right now, the college graduation numbers being put up by black and brown young Americans are much lower than the national average. If they remain much lower than the national average, as the proortion of those students grows as a proportion of all students, that’s going to be bad for the country and bad for the wealth of the country. Anybody from the majority that’s looking out at the future should think about the fact that if they’d like to retire and get their social security check deposited once a month, that amount is going to be made up by the taxes of a minority-majority workforce. In 2010, for the first time, more kids whose parents are decedents of people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America were born in this country than of kids that were born from the decedents of people from Europe. It happened in 2010 for the first time. We crossed that threshold, and it’s going to be that way every year for the next half-century. We ought to be thinking about not only how to stretch and accommodate and get used to this new idea of America, but we have to think in very practical terms about who’s going to graduate from school? Who’s going to make the money? Who’s going to pay the taxes? If my social security check is an aggregate of the earnings of all these people, who are they, and are they lunkheads or are they well educated, ready-to-earn people who are going to make a good living and make a go of it in America? Finally, in 2015, we are all in this together. Everyone has a stake in the success of minority youngsters going forward.
MH: As Latino-Hispanic culture continues to shape who America is as a nation, I wonder if I could ask you what our nation could learn from this culture as a whole. I realize I’m asking you to make some broad generalizations.
RS: (laughter) Yeah, really there is no other way to answer that one. We should recognize what’s valuable, as we have with every group that’s come here. We’ve recognized what’s valuable about what they bring here, and over time, discarded what they’ve brought here that’s not applicable, useful or that isn’t wanted. That isn’t different about this new kid on the block, who at the same time is the oldest kid on the block, since places like St. Augustine, Florida or Santa Fe, New Mexico are much older than Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, Virginia - something we sometimes forget. There are aspects of Hispanic culture that will drop away from Latino families as they are in the country longer. It will be fascinating for social scientists to watch this large group of people, 1 out of every 6 Americans, and whether they adopt the norms of a wider society, or hold on to the things they have with them when they come. For instance, Latino families tend to live in multigenerational households more than other Americans. As they are here longer, will they adopt to the prevailing, wider-society model and stop living in multigenerational households, or will the number of multigenerational households continue to increase as the number of Latino families continues to increase? Nursing homes… when you go to Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, they’re not chockablock with old age homes, because people tend to live with their families until they need hospice care or they go and die in the hospital. Divorce rates are different among new arrivals than they are among Latino families that have been here two, three, or four generations. We have seen that with divorce particularly - the numbers start to move toward the American norm rather than remain where they were when the immigrant families came. There is, unfortunately, in many Latino families, more of a value put on education for boys rather than girls, because that old idea that they will be largely the support of the family and the main breadwinners hasn’t died off yet, but it will. More Latino families need to be encouraged to see their girls as every bit as deserving of the kind of investment they are making in the educational futures of boys. This was also true of immigrant families going back along way. There was not only the fear that you would be transformed by receiving more education and not be “like us” anymore. It is something you can see in world-class literature going back to the nineteenth century. The idea that you will grow away from the culture, that you will stop being who you are and that you’ll forget who you are is all deeply embedded in a lot of these communities. It’s going away. When you talk to these families they know that learning English and doing well in school are key to getting ahead in society. If the father of the household is doing manual labor, when you talk to these families they don’t want their kids to do manual labor. They have no shame in it. They are not ashamed that this is what they do, and they are very proud of the fact that they work for their daily bread, but on the other hand, when you ask them about their children and their children’s chances in the United States, they recognize that education is a big part of it. There is a delicate dance that’s going on, on both sides. Both the wider society that’s getting used to having these people around, and the new people themselves deciding a la carte - looking at the menu of options, and deciding how to be - and deciding what’s for them and what’s not.
MH: Interesting, when you brought up the topic of family, that is something I really wanted to talk with you about today, is this concept of family. At Appalachian we have this phrase that we use: “The Appalachian Family,” and a lot of people use it very genuinely to describe a positive experience they had while they were here. We tend to wrap our arms around our students and encourage them in many ways to be successful, but this is not a positive experience for everyone. You’ll hear people say that. We have 20,000 faculty, staff and students on our campus right now, and over 117,000 alumni, and some feel excluded. Some feel as if they haven’t been treated as family, and some feel that the concept of family is an inherently patriarchal, imposing concept and shouldn’t be applied to academia. As educators, we are taught to understand the importance of family and community within the Hispanic-Latino value system. I wonder if there is something that we at Appalachian can learn from this concept of family that is so inherent and important to Latino-Hispanic culture as we continue to try to build a multicultural community here.
RS: One of the biggest challenges for Latino young adults in finishing a credential, a two-year or four-year degree, is that when they get in trouble, when they are off track, or when they’re in danger of being put on academic probation, in a lot of colleges they feel like no one even knows they are in trouble. So they’re out in the lake, they’re going down for the third time, they’re waving their arms and everybody is standing on the shore and not even aware that they are drowning. Completion rates are terrible for Latino college students. A lot of them start, and too many of them don’t finish. That concept of family is useful, because in colleges where they aren’t equipped to keep an eye on students - not in the behavioral sense, but academic progress - a lot of them report afterwards when they talk to social scientists or when they talk to schools themselves, they will say something like, “I felt like when I was leaving or when I didn’t enroll for the next semester, no one even knew I had gone.” That is something that you hear from a lot of the kids who now have one, or two-and-a-half, years of college. They have the debt from it, but they have none of the acceleration that having a credential brings so they get the worst of both worlds. They don’t get the push of a degree, but they still have a millstone around their neck of the debt. Unfortunately, it is a widespread story, because the start rate for Latino kids coming out of high school is great now. It is much better than it has ever been, but the completion rate is dauntingly low. That idea that, “someone knew when I got in trouble,” I think it feeds into the numbers that are coming out of colleges and universities that now attest to the fact that expensive private schools with higher graduation rates actually know if you’re in trouble more than the affordable option. That you and your family sat around the living room running the numbers, and you decided you couldn’t afford Acme college and you chose Zenith University because it’s cheaper. It turns out you end up dropping out of Zenith because of those reasons I mentioned before. You got lost in the sauce, and no one even knew you had disappeared from campus. Right now we have a crisis - I don’t think it is an exaggeration to call it a crisis - where a lot of academically-qualified, Latino students are pulling their punches. They are not striving to enter the best programs that their grades would get them into. They are playing it safe, and applying for middle-of-the-deck colleges. They’re thinking, “I’ll be safer here,” and, “I’ll be better off here. The fact that I went to a bad, overcrowded, under-resourced public school and I had some shortcomings in my preparation won’t show here at this safe school, and will show at this highly demanding, rigorous school.” The highly rigorous school can get you what you need, because they want you to finish, because they want those gaudy completion rates so they can put them in the US News and World Report standings and keep their numbers up. It is a terrible paradox that the safer school and the one that arguably might be easier for you to complete is the one you’re more likely to drop out from.
MH: Well, you’re about to speak to a group of educators who work with college students across our state, but I’d like to ask if you could to speak to our students for a moment. What advice do you have to this current generation of college students as they face the future before them?
RS: I tell my kids, when I’m in a fit of honesty, that I’m glad I’m not starting out now. But that’s not meant to bum you out - that’s just meant as an observation. This is a tough time to get traction as a young adult, and get going on whatever your life holds for you, or whatever you’re looking to do with yourself and where you want to go. That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, and that doesn’t mean it’s some awful trial. Life is still wonderful; America is still a great place to get started. You can’t pick your time; you can’t choose when you were born. You can’t pick the times that you are going to live in, and the times that you’re going to make as an adult. You just have to play with the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes it involves bluffing, acting like you have four aces when you really have junk in your hand. Sometimes it means postponing some of the milestones you thought you would hit at certain ages: “I wanted to be here at twenty-five and here at twenty-seven and do this by the time I was thirty…” all that has to be tossed aside. We are in a time in America where all of that stuff is being re-negotiated, for better or worse. With us living longer, who said we have to be married by a certain age if you’re going to be alive until you’re ninety? No people in the history of the world have been able to assume that there is a very good chance that they will be alive when they are ninety. Today’s seniors, twenty-two year olds, can assume that. The way your life rolls out is going to be a whole different matter from what it was from the young men and women in a hurry who graduated from college forty or fifty years ago. They felt like they had to really get going on these things: own a house, find a husband, find a wife, have kids. My own kids are twenty-six, twenty-four and sixteen, and their lives are going to be calibrated differently. They can’t believe that I was married at twenty-three. They think it’s crazy - and not even germane to their reality today - as young adults in America. That’s just one example of many. Yes, it’s tough to get going and yes, it’s disappointing to hundreds of thousands of young adults. It’s been tough, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. That just means you have to tailor your expectations to the times and keep on keeping on.
MH: Luckily, they’re a really optimistic generation! Well, Mr. Ray Suarez it has been great getting to talk with you today. Your presence on our campus is going to be so important to the educators that are here today to listen to you. I really appreciate you taking this time because what this will allow us to do is spread that presence beyond the time that you are here on our campus so we can re-visit what you had to say today and learn from that as a community at Appalachian.
RS: That, and you’re linguistics majors can listen to my Brooklyn accent and ponder some of the ins and outs of it, and why it’s so different from the way people talk here!
MH: Thank you, thank you very much.
RS: My pleasure.