As the national debate over immigration and the future of Latinos in America rages on, one man has taken it upon himself to look at the issue from the seat of a bicycle.
Departing July 1 from San José, Calif., Louis Mendoza, chair of the Chicano studies department, will bicycle 8,500 miles across the United States through December of this year.
The journey is an effort to discuss people’s opinions about the “Latinoization” of the country and other issues that affect Latinos.
Mendoza said “Latinoization,” described as the emergence of the Latino community in the United States, has brought about a distinct change in American society.
“We’re the nation’s largest ethnic minority group, and that has represented a huge shift in the national consciousness about race,” he said. “Before, I think it was always understood in black and white terms.”
Mendoza said the increased attention paid to Latinos in America inspired him to undertake this journey.
“There’s been a lot of national attention paid to the immigration issues that has raised a lot of questions about Latinos’ place here in the United States,” he said.
Along the way, Mendoza plans to talk to people about their opinions and feelings on the issues. At trip’s end, Mendoza will write two books – one to be an academic study of the opinions he gathers and another to be a memoir.
While the immigration issue is sometimes seen as a polarizing debate, Mendoza said he doesn’t feel all people see it as a cut-and-dry issue.
“My experience tells me at the ground level, people think this is a complicated issue and have strong opinions about it,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t as frightened and freaked out as the media would make us think.”
Mario Hernandez, executive director of La Escuelita, an organization that provides programs for Latino youth and where Mendoza serves on the board of directors, said while
statistics can show change in population, they cannot tell the story of those people.
“One of the benefits is it’s very humanizing,” he said. “When we talk about immigration and illegal aliens, it tends to be very dehumanizing.”
University alumna Alondra Espejel said one of Mendoza’s strengths has always been his ability to relate to the community.
“I think this just speaks to that spirit of trying to connect what’s going on in our communities and trying to make research relevant,” she said.
While she sees the journey as a great opportunity, Espejel said she is a bit concerned about the trip.
“I’m a little cautious of what he is going to bump into, this Latino guy biking around the country knowing the current state of race relations,” she said. “But the other part is really promising, growing and learning and reconnecting with a lot of different people.”
Miguel Vargas, University alumnus and principal administrative specialist for Chicano studies and American Indian studies, said the trip is both “courageous” and “ambitious.”
“(Mendoza)’s going to try to put his travels and this country into some kind of perspective or many perspectives,” he said. “Not too many people do this, not too many people I work for, anyway.”
Mendoza said using a bicycle gives him a chance to talk to more people. The pace he will be traveling, about 75 miles per day, will enable him to see more along the way.
“That will ensure that I have lots of chances to talk to people, everyday folks,” he said. “So I figured my experience of interacting with people is going to be enriched by going so slow.”
Mendoza said while he hopes his work will have an impact, he is not looking to disrespect those he talks to, regardless of their opinions.
“It’s a challenge to me to represent those voices fairly,” he said. “My goal isn’t to judge people; it’s to allow those voices to come through.”