Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Miguel Ayllon is the International Outreach Coordinator at the MU College of Engineering and the president of MU Voz Latina.
As many in our city gather to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, I would like to reflect on my personal experiences as a Latino in Columbia and celebrate the heritage of the Latino leaders of our city.
August 4, 1999: it was close to 1:00 a.m. in the morning, and my flight from Lima, Peru, to Atlanta was about to depart. I could not believe that I was finally going to the United States to pursue educational opportunities. I was really excited to travel to the land of opportunity, the land of big burgers and fries, to the land of the so-called "American dream." The flight attendant tells us to buckle up as the plane gets in position to take-off, and all of the sudden I burst into tears. The lady right next to me asks: “Are you ok?” "Yes," I replied, "this is just my first time flying out of the country, and I have no clue when I will return home." As a 17-year-old young man I was scared to leave all I knew, but adventure stirred within me.
Fourteen years after this flight, I find myself in Columbia working for a world-class, land grant public university, the University of Missouri. I moved to Columbia in the fall of 2008 to take a position as a Residence Hall Coordinator in the MU Department of Residential Life. I had never heard of Columbia until my sister in-law, a Mizzou alumna, encouraged me to seek employment opportunities at MU. My time in Columbia has been very rewarding. I have been able to grow professionally, but above all, I have been blessed to find a support system of family, friends and colleagues that have encouraged and help me make Columbia my new home. This flight from Lima to Atlanta not only allowed for great educational opportunities, but it also gave me a beautiful and brilliant Columbian as a wife. My wife has lived in Columbia her entire life, and together this may be our final port of destination. I met my wife at The Crossing church where we both are members. God does have a sense of humor! How did He manage to bring a Latino all the way from Peru to Columbia to share a life journey with a Missourian?
Columbia has surprised me in other great ways. A couple of years ago I attended the True/False Film Fest and enjoyed a movie called “Familia,” which portrayed a beautiful story of the neighborhood I grew up in Lima. I also spoke in Spanish to the director of the film who happened to be from Sweden. Where else can you find a movie about Peru produced by a Swedish filmmaker? To me this is just a glimpse of the exciting international and cross-cultural exchanges occurring in Columbia.
My life journey in the U.S. has indeed been a transformational experience. Even before I was born, my parents had always wanted to send me to the United States because they believed the American college system would give me the best opportunities to succeed and allow me to give back to our community. Having received my high school, undergraduate, and graduate education in Georgia and Tennessee, I now have the wonderful opportunity to develop a professional career working at MU. As I reflect back on my journey in this country, I realize how blessed and privileged I have been to receive an education and job opportunities in the United States. It is the desire of my heart to use the skills and influence I have gained through the years to serve those who have not had the same opportunities I had. My professional and personal success is worth nothing if I fail to serve and bless those who need it the most.
Leading MU Voz Latina has been one the most rewarding experiences of my journey in Columbia. I have had the privilege to serve as president of MU Voz Latina for the last five years. I decided to join MU Voz Latina because I have a passion to bring a positive influence and create change in my campus and community. MU Voz Latina originally started as the MU Hispanic Latin American Faculty & Staff Association (HLAFSA), which was created back in 1999 by a core group of Latino faculty and staff who believed that there was the need for a place where the Latino voice could be expressed and heard. As a result of an organizational revitalization process, in March of 2013, the HLAFSA name was replaced with “MU Voz Latina” with the ultimate goal to bring the university closer to the community. The mission of MU Voz Latina is to be a “vibrant organization dedicated to empower the Latino communities of MU and Columbia to lead and to achieve academic, professional, and personal success.”
As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to publicly thank all the founding leaders and members of HLAFSA for laying the foundation of an organization that has shaped the leadership and service of Latinos for 14 consecutive years. I also want to take this opportunity to thank the current members of the MU Voz Latina executive board: Hannia Burke-Aguero (Costa Rica), David Mendoza- Cozatl (Mexico), Irma Arteaga (Peru), Elizabeth Hoyos (Colombia), Carolina Grullon (Dominican Republic), and Eliana Jeanetta (Brazil) from whom I have learned great lessons on servant leadership and humility. I also want to make special mention of our generous sponsor, the MU Chancellor's Diversity Initiative office, and our strategic partners: Latino/a Graduate Professional Network (LGPN), MU Cambio Center, Centro Latino and the Hispanic American Leadership Organization (HALO) for their steadfast support.
My personal story falls short of the richer and more inspiring stories of many other Latinos who have had to overcome bigger obstacles to find success in their lives. Many of these Latinos are invisible and their stories remain silent. In historical times such as this where the Latino population continues to grow and the United States is making progress toward comprehensive immigration reform, it has never been so important to understand the stories of hope and resilience of Latinos in the Columbia community. Our immigration system is broken and is in need of more humane and inclusive policies. Latinos are here to contribute and invest in the Columbia community with leadership, hard work, and service. I urge Latinos in positions of leadership, community advocates, faith communities, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and private businesses to speak up and make a bold statement for social justice and inclusion because history has shown that the apathy, silence, and inaction of key leaders can legitimize oppression.
Columbia has successful and hard-working Latinos in education, healthcare, media, construction, music, restaurants, non-profits, and service industries. It has also been refreshing to see many Latino entrepreneurs leading their own business or involved in the leadership of key local businesses. I celebrate the success and expertise of the Latino leaders in the community and ask that we seek strategic opportunities to work together to overcome the educational attainment gap, poverty and segregation among Latinos in our city. I strongly believe that when Latinos dream together and work as a team, extraordinary things happen.
As we celebrate a new edition of National Hispanic Heritage Month and Columbia prepares to celebrate 200 years of history in the next few years, I strongly believe that Columbia will continue to be a special city where Latinos can write stories of resilience, success and hope.
Muchas gracias Columbia!
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