Esther J. Cepeda: Amigos en bleu welcome immigrant children | Column


Esther J. Cepeda


Let me set the scene for you: it was around noon on an incredibly hot day at Renstone Park in Sun Prairie. The forecast called for a high of 91 degrees, but it was much worse than that after walking around a sunny football pitch. Just imagine trying to keep the ball moving between two competing groups of first, second and third graders attending a skills camp.

I munched on pyramids of succulent watermelons as adult volunteers helped seat nearly 40 children on shaded picnic benches with plates full of standard American summer fare. Hot dogs, chips, a serving of fruit, plus brightly-wrapped candy to strengthen both mind and body.

Bodies reacted to the heat, but minds also went super squirrelly, as well-meaning adult after adult rose in front of the young crowd to give their best pitch.

And it was then, as young people whispered politely wondering who these people were in the world, that I realized: this is happening! These children receive the conference on heritage!

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You see, as an immigrant, refugee – or a child thereof – you go on like everyone else in life, mind your own business, are an ordinary kid who likes to eat candy and hang out with friends. Fanaticism or rudeness due to an accent or other cultural sign is ignored if noticed.

Then all of a sudden, bam!, you’re buckled up for a series of upbeat sermons about how proud you should be of your country of origin or derivation, how important it is to have respect for where you’re from. come and how much your parents go out of their way to give you this “better life”.

At one point, a student leaned over to me, puzzled, and asked, “What is amigosenazul?”

This child did not understand that he was hearing the Spanish words “amigos en azul” (this translates to “friends in blue”) because little Spanish was spoken in his native Afghanistan. Other students responded to adults’ questions about their families, happily shouting that they were from Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, Libya, Sierra Leone and other countries where political instability, climate change and poverty have combined to create painfully daily humanitarian crises.

But despite language barriers, the message was making small but important inroads: people in blue uniforms like you and want you in their neighborhoods.

Unbeknownst to the participating boys and girls, their football outing was part of a 17-year outreach effort between the city of Madison and Dane County area police officers, called Amigos En Azul, designed to ” dissolve[e] cultural barriers, build partnerships and open lines of communication” with communities that have traditionally not had many positive interactions with the police.

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As an adult, these moments delivered on an otherwise carefree afternoon of sport and friendship take on their full meaning in the world – our country is changing dramatically and any community’s relationship with newcomers must be cultivated. , rather than being taken for granted.

The nation’s consideration of the painful intersection of race/ethnicity and police power has shed light on the diversity of the Madison Police Department. Although only 7% of Madison’s commissioned officer corps are Hispanic/Latino, compared to 9% black and 77% white, the corps count accurately reflects the community it serves – a fact that is hardly comforting. for many who feel targeted by the police because of their skin.

But, as has always been the case, people who actually work with immigrants, refugees and other marginalized communities do so because they fondly remember their own family legends from distant lands. They want to make sure that newcomers are not feared or reviled like the Irish, Italians and Germans once were. They want to boost the diversity numbers now, not in the distant future.

This was only my second year volunteering for the Amigos En Azul football camp, alongside members of La Barra 608, the Latinx supporters group of Forward Madison Football Club, and members of The Flock, the supporters group of the team. I left the event feeling good about spending time with kids who need a little extra push, but not very convinced that such gentle forms of awareness could ever cross the chasm. who awaits us.

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While writing this column, I even wondered if casting a positive spotlight on a small, under-resourced outreach effort — which seems to be supported almost exclusively by the efforts of Latino police officers — might serve to undermine the arguments of people with real and alarming problems. criticism of how power is used by law enforcement against the most vulnerable.

If other regional programs offer kids of color the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful game — and maybe even one day be able to compete against wealthy white soccer players for spots on America’s college, pro, and Olympic soccer teams — do let me know and I’ll check.

Until then, low-income immigrant and native-born children of color will be happy to learn about community-building in their adopted country by those willing to step out into the heat and discomfort. to build it.

Cepeda, of Madison, can be reached at and @estherjcepeda.


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