Cyndi Allison

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Interview Text and Audio


Themes include Cyndi Allison's personal experiences in North Carolina, how the Latino Population has changed throughout her life, stereotypes associated with Latinos in North Carolina, origins of these stereotypes, how the media portrays Latinos, how the media decides what stories are news worthy, and how the media’s portrayal of Latinos impacts that population. The interview contains a brief background of Allison, and she elaborates on this throughout the interview. Allison states her opinions on the topics listed above and gives many first hand examples that she has witnessed throughout her life. It is particularly interesting and relevant to hear her talk about the media and how they choose what stories run and what do not. She also talks candidly about how Latinos are viewed in her rural North Carolina town. Another major theme that Allison discusses is Latino assimilation, this is a theme that she worries about. She believes many Latinos are losing their culture in her community.



Caleb Wittum: This is an interviewer with Catawba College Professor of Communications Cyndi Allison for the Southern Oral History Program’s series “Latin American Immigrant perspectives” The interview is conducted on Sunday April 8, 2012. The interview is being conducted at Cyndi’s house and the interviewer is Caleb Wittum. Ok, to start out can you tell me a little about yourself. Where you have worked? How long you have lived in North Carolina?
Cyndi Allison: I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life. My family was a military family until I was four years old and we moved to Cleveland, North Carolina when I was four. So I don’t really remember living anywhere else. Although, I went to college in Raleigh and then graduate school in Dallas, Texas so I’ve lived in other areas and then was married to someone in the military and lived in Greece and Japan.
CW: Alright, umm. I know you work as a Professor but what else have you done?
CA: I’ve done a variety of different jobs over the years. During high school I worked at the hospital in food service and I worked in sheet metal. And then I worked in a group home and I worked as a social worker. And then I moved back to this area, back to my hometown, about 15, 20 years ago and I have taught at Catawba College since then in Communications.
CW: You have also done quite a bit of writing for the media, that you’ve worked as a freelance writer. Could you talk a little bit about that?
CA: Well I published my first article when I was age 12 a contest with the Salisbury Post and I made five dollars which was a lot of money back at that point in time. And then I got really serious about writing when I was thirty, which was twenty years ago, and I had children at that time. So it wasn’t really easy to find a job in the military and I would write in the evenings and sell my work. And So I did features and I did them across the globe. So for instance I wrote for GI Japan when we lived in Japan but I also sent articles back here to the United States and I have continued to do that and I was early online. So I have about somewhere between 12 and 15 years of online writing experience too.
CW: At…you teach at Catawba, what do you focus on there? What are your main classes?
CA: My main focus would be on writing and I do the journalism classes, the writing for media, and new media classes. I am also the advisor for the college student newspaper The Pioneer.
CW: I guess, you have spent a lot of time in North Carolina have you seen changes in the Latino population?
CA: Oh definitely. When I was younger the Hispanic population was virtually invisible. They came through during seasons for the crops. So they would be here in the spring and summer and very little interaction with the community. And then over the years the population has, has grown as some of the Hispanic families have settled in the area. Particularly in the neighboring county of Davie County, where twenty percent of the students at Coollamee elementary school are now Hispanic. I think that the overall increase in the last ten years is double the population for Hispanics in my county: Rowan County.
CW: Alright. You also grew up around here what was the immigration, no immigrant population like then? I know that you said they were migratory but did you have any experiences with them?
CA: For the most part we did not see any of the Hispanic children when I was a child. And I’m sure that they did travel with their parents who work the fields and probably the young children too. But I live in town, when I say in town I’m talking about a town of 820 people though. So it is still very rural but we are surrounded by farms. And so the migrant workers and they were referred to as Mexicans during that time frame when I was younger would come through just like the carnival workers. And I think that the attitude toward those workers would have been similar to, as the term here was, Carnies. And they just passed through and so they were just kind of a minor blip on the radar of the people in this area.
CW: Could a little bit more about how most…some North Carolinians view the Latinos? You just mentioned a little bit of it.
CA: It was discussed much since the Hispanic population primarily stayed out of sight and they did not mingle with the rest of the population which in this area would be White and African American. And so there was one girl during my whole time in school from elementary through high school, High School included the entire county. There was only one student who was Hispanic. So I guess she would have really been my only direct exposure to someone who was Hispanic during my early years.
CW: Could you talk a little bit about her experience? Did she fit in well with the rest of the school?
CA: She was well liked. She was very bubbly and funny. And full of energy. She did not date and I do not think that any of the boys really would have considered dating her. She really wouldn’t have had a chance to interact socially because she worked in the fields. And also she was catholic. And so in addition to being the only Hispanic student in our high school and we had maybe 800 students she was also the only catholic in the high school.
CW: You mentioned that she worked in the fields, who else typically works in the fields in this area?
CA: Some of the high school kids in the area would work summer jobs with the farms, but they did things like grading the tomatoes. They would be indoors where they would be standing up straight. And they would just sort out the high quality tomatoes from the lesser quality ones as far as sells. And then over the years as the farmers market idea became more popular then the white children, and it would be children of the farmers or farmers friends children, would be the ones running the cash register or the ones helping customers.
CW: So the jobs actually in the fields were mostly reserved for Latinos?
CA: I would say definitely yes and I know that my friend in High School worked directly in the fields and her father really stressed education. And he also stressed that the girls should marry well so he had the girl I went to school with and all the sisters in the family to religiously wear knee pads because he did not want their legs to be messed up by kneeling in the fields. He felt that they would be less marriageable if their legs didn’t look good. So I remember that they were very diligent about wearing knee pads when working the fields.
CW: Have you noticed any other stereotypes associated with the Latino population here that, like violence, or drugs, or gangs, or loss of jobs?
CA: Well my earliest memory and what most people in my generation would remember as far as an icon for Hispanics would be the Frito Bandito. And that was a commercial that was between 67 and 1971. And they had an overweight Mexican man he would have been called then with a big mustache and a big sombrero. And the Frito bandito was advertising Fritos corn chips and he would sing a little song that said “Ay yi yi yi yi. I am the Frito bandito” and so the message was pretty clear. People from Mexico were overweight, lazy, and they were Banditos or thieves. So you needed to be careful about your Fritos chips because he might take your chips. And so I think that probably people in this area had on some level the idea that that was a reflection of the Mexican culture. When in fact they came in and did the heavy lifting, you might say, labor in our area by working our fields.
CW: Do you think these stereotypes are still holding strong and do you think there are any new ones?
CA: Well I know that in this area there is still the umm class or caste system to some extent. It may not discussed very often but I attended a festival and they had a white male in a dunk tank. The white male was earning money for the church and he was making racist comments and jokes. Those jokes revolved around the Mexican workers and the example I remember most was a joke about “what has 8 arms and can pick a lot of tomatoes?” And he said a Mexican octopus and he drew a lot of laughter with that comment and I’m sure that they sold more of the balls to throw to dunk him in the tank. But I really didn’t see any reaction on the part of the people who were at that festival with umm being appalled that someone who benefitted from that labor would make fun of the very people who ensure that our farms stay in operation.
CW: I guess what interaction do most people have around here with Latinos? You’ve mentioned that it’s not been a lot.
CA: I think it has increased somewhat and that is primarily because the Hispanic population is now here year around rather than just during crop season. And so we have that increase in the number of children at the schools so as I mentioned the population at Cooleemee Elementary school would be 20% Hispanic. My sister’s children are in that elementary school so I know that they pick up some Spanish words and that my oldest niece had a Hispanic little boy at her birthday party. So I think there is assimilation now that I didn’t see previously. My sons were also in Scouts and one of their closest friends was Hispanic, actually he was half Hispanic. His mother was white and a local girl, and his father was Hispanic. But I think a lot of the children who are interacting more are more Americanized.
CW: I guess how would that…the ones that are more Americanized what do you think makes it easier for them to interact?
CA: If you are comfortable with the culture it is easier to interact. I lived in Greece and Japan and if you are not fluent in a language and if you don’t know all the social customs then you are an outsider. So when we have families who are very traditionally Hispanic in the area with different holidays and different ways of doing things then it’s hard for the mainstream or larger population to relate. So for instance when Day of the Dead rolls around and our neighbors have a big party, the neighbors on the other side of me call the police to report that they are making too much noise. And everybody here in this particular area would celebrate Christmas and the fourth of July. We would go out and shoot fireworks, but I know that neighbors had a problem with the laser lights and the music on day of the dead because it wasn’t one of our holidays.
CW: The…Where do you think most people around here get their information about Latinos?
CA: I would guess that the bulk of information about the Latino population would come from word of mouth, followed by coverage in the newspaper and television. What we see, what we hear, what we read. And then what individuals say.
I know that one of the local farmers mentioned that his farm foreman, is Hispanic and then he said and he was just like family. But he didn’t live in the family house he lived in a separate housing unit which certainly wasn’t near as nice. And I remember when I heard that statement I thought back to comments about African Americans when people in the areas would say that their housekeeper or their maid was just like one of the family. I think it’s hard to say someone is just like one of the family when they really aren’t and when they don’t have the same advantages.
CW: So do you think personal experience that they see them out in the fields, that they associate…do you think that plays a major role as well?
CA: I think that, probably a lot of people in this area stay on the main roads and don’t even get off the beaten track and see the work being done. So although we live in what I characterize as a farming community, I think that some people stay in that bubble and even though they can drive a mile off a side road and see a major farm that they in many ways are like urban citizens and don’t even have a clear cut idea of the way food gets from the field to the table.
CW: What type of stories normally run in the media about Latinos?
CA: I did a project on A hundred years of Rowan County History which came out in 1999, and I covered business and education but I was involved with the entire project which covered all aspects life in this area. And to the best of my knowledge there were no references to Hispanics in that entire issue. So again it comes back to that being an invisible population. And certainly they have been a big part of our culture here because we don’t have the man power or woman power to work these fields because it is very hands on labor.
And I see a few stories now where they might cover something like a religious event at a church, a Hispanic church. But I would say the primary articles that I see that deal with Hispanics would be arrest. So…the police blotter or in the case with online news they actually run articles. In my day you just had a list of crimes that were committed in the paper. But apparently putting the mug shot and the story particularly of what I would call dumb criminals. If they get caught and they did something kind of off the wall those stories are the ones that are featured on the front page of the online version of the local newspaper.
CW: How do the members of the media choose what to run and what doesn’t?
CA: If it burns or bleeds it leads primarily. News has always, in our country, been about the hype and about something that is vivid and particularly with TV something that’s very visual. And so the dramatic stories tend to take front page or tend to take the sound bite news on television. And if you have a robbery or a death or a fire in this area with it being a small town those are going to be the top news stories.
If you have someone who is working to better the community in some way with a program, that may or may not make the news. If it is a Hispanic based story then it’s probably less likely to make the news. One of the barriers would be that I’m not aware of any reporters that are at our local newspaper who speak fluent Spanish. And so there is a language barrier. Then there is a cultural barrier. And I think that oftentimes the stories in this area are called in so reporters get tips. And I think that the Hispanic population is less likely to toot their own horn or call in tips. So I think there is maybe a lack of awareness in terms of what’s going on.
CW: Do you think the lack of awareness hurts the Latino population, and really helps to cause some of the stereotypes?
CA: I would think certainly. If we don’t know what a community is doing and we don’t hear their news both the good and the bad. That that is going to be a liability and I know when I did the research on The Hundred Years of Rowan County that there was a section called Colored News. And I know that does sound racist and is racist; however there was a forum for news in the paper that covered a smaller population group. And now you don’t see that. So I know there was an attempt at a Latino newspaper here in this area.
I know that some of my students were approached about writing for that, but didn’t feel like they had the skills to write in Spanish for the Spanish community. So my understanding was that they didn’t or were not able to find someone from the community to cover the news. So I would say that most likely the Hispanic population is not getting the higher education needed to help report their own news. I know that I have not to my recollection ever had a Hispanic student in a college class where I teach.
CW: Going off of that, what…how does the mass media frame most of their stories? Like how do they organize it
CA: Could you clarify that question?
CW: What slant do they try and…is it normally…is there one way that you know sells more, people read it more often?
CA: In this area, our primary news coverage is print. We do not have a television station. Rowan County is a small country; 23,000. And most of the Hispanic population would be in rural counties like this one. So we don’t make the television news very often period and we rely on Newspaper coverage. Newspaper or print is desperate in terms of finances at this point in time because of the internet. So in order to get readership and to get those ad sells they need the numbers. So a dramatic story would be one that would make the news. So if we have gang activity or a murder or we have a fight or if there is unrest between social groups, then that would be the type of stories that would be covered.
And I know I have seen coverage when there was a pending fight between African American and Hispanic kids at one of the schools. It wasn’t the one right here in my town, but I can remember seeing that coverage.
I know also that my younger son won a medal, the Carnegie medal for heroism and also the Boy Scout Medal of Honor cross palms, for saving someone who was drowning and that did make the Newspaper. Obviously, it was a really big story and one of those feel good nice stories that don’t usually make the paper, but because of the honors and the awards it did. And the boy that he saved was Hispanic. And I’ve had someone ask me you know what was his race and the name was Hispanic. And I think my response was I don’t know he didn’t ask before he jumped in the river.
But I also know that they have a comments section which apparently is very popular on the online newspaper. In the comments section some very racist comments went up about the other child. When I say child, both boys were teens, but people made really nice comments about my son saving someone’s life. And then about the other boy there was a comment that I remember very vividly that said the only river that a Mexican can swim is the Rio Grande. That by the way was taken down---apparently the policy at the paper is anything goes unless there is a complaint. Once there is a complaint they may monitor and pull materials like that. But I, that certainly was live in the comment feed for a period of time because I saw that comment.
CW: Do you think that there are a lot of comments like that around here, that you have mentioned a couple during this interview?
CA: Definitely. I would like to say that I live in a community where everyone is welcome and where everyone is treated equal but that wouldn’t be true if I were to make that comment. It’s not been true at any point during my lifetime, where there was true equality.
I have seen improvements. When I was in high school there was only one mixed race couple. And the girl was white and the boy was black, and the girl was really ostracized in the high school population because she was dating outside of her race.
CW: You mentioned this example, do you think that relations will improve and stereotypes will go away for the Latino population like as time goes on?
CA: I think that the assimilation there is quite different from the assimilation with African American and White culture in this area and probably in other areas as well. The African American population was brought here against their will, it wasn’t a conscious choice to come to our country. So I think there has been a bigger attempt to stay separate on some levels by African Americans and to take pride in their heritage and to continue to honor who they are and where they came from. And I see more with the Hispanic population, a blending in with the culture. So in some ways the ones that are most successful in the community just are absorbed and I hate to use the word watered down but the children that are maybe second or third generation suddenly seem very not Hispanic and don’t seem to be carrying on the traditions in the same way that the African Americans will.
They listen to mainstream American music and celebrate our main stream customs. Whereas the black children still will honor people like Martin Luther King JR or Rosa Parks and will celebrate Kwanzaa and celebrate in having a different culture.
CW: Have you noticed the ones that you know are “absorbed,” is that making their transition a lot easier? Like are they fitting in better? Have they avoided the stereotypes?

CA: I would say yes on that. I know the little boy that came to my niece’s birthday party seemed very Americanized and the group didn’t seem to look at or consider him different in any way. Unlike when my younger son’s best friend would come to a birthday party and I think everybody was quite aware that he was African American and that there was a difference when it comes to his cultural background. I see some of the Hispanic children particularly if they have a white parent and they begin to look not so Latino or not so Hispanic that suddenly that past is erased. At least in the eyes of the white population. Now what goes on within their homes, I cannot say. They may have more investment in their culture than what I see. I do know that I have heard Hispanic children who are quite Americanized and have parents from both cultures, oftentimes laugh and make jokes about the newer Hispanics or those who are first generation or not as assimilated.
CW: Do you think outside appearance or the way they look like has a big role around here?
CA: I would say yes. That if you were a white male in this area with a daughter, that you probably have less objections to your daughter dating someone who was mixed race Hispanic than mixed race African American. And I just base that on with the relationships that I have seen and the comments that I’ve heard.
CW: Do you think that the media could do a better job of running stories about Latinos or do you think that the media around here doesn’t have the abilities or the tools to do it?
CA: I think that at this point that it is a financial issue. Up until five or six years ago they did have the advertising revenue to support enough reporters that they could have and should have had someone who was a specialist in Latino or Hispanic issues given the size and growth of that population. I don’t recall that we have ever have had a Hispanic reporter in this area and I think we would be unlikely to now because we have so few reporters period.
But then again as I mentioned before I think that probably Hispanic children from this area are not encouraged to go into majors like communications, journalism, media. From what I have seen they’re more likely to be encouraged to pick a sure bet job so for instance the girl I went to high school with went into nursing school which virtually guaranteed her a job then and now.

CW: Do you think that added stories, and that aren’t arrest or drugs or the bad stories that typically run about Hispanics, do you think that would help the understanding of this community or help people around here to understand that community better?
CA: I would certainly think so because you know if you are a child and the only image that you see of a population is a Frito Bandito. Then that certainly colors your few of what people of that culture would be like. You know I didn’t have a negative view or a racist view of children from other cultures; I just didn’t have exposure really other than that commercial. I mean I never remember playing with a Hispanic child, but then again I never played with anyone who was catholic with the exception of one girl in my High School and we didn’t have any Jewish children. So it’s a very insular community, which I think is common in rural North Carolina. We have primarily a white population and then we have a smaller black population which would be descendants of slaves that worked in these farm areas.
CW: Do you think that cartoons…I’m thinking of Dora the Explorer…I know you mentioned your nieces watched that. Do you think that would help to give a different view of?
CA: Is Dora Hispanic?
CW: I think so, she speaks Spanish.
CA: Ok. I had sons. We watched the Power Rangers so it’s a little difficult for me to respond to that question. But I do think if we had programs that featured children from different ethnic backgrounds, that it would be helpful to children in general in terms of understanding that our way is not the only way. My way is not the only way.
CW: Do you think…You said Davie County had 20% in their elementary school.
CA: At Cooleemee. That is the one that I checked. My nieces attend there.
CW: Do you think growing up with that large a percentage will speed up the mixing and the improved relations that they are going to be growing up together.
CA: Well my nieces certainly seem comfortable with the idea that their classmates are from a different culture. And I will hear them intermingle or intersperse some Spanish words in their conversation from time to time. So simply by going to school with children from a different culture I know they pick up some of that. So I have a blonde haired blue eyed niece who might say something to me in Spanish occasionally.
[Cyndi pours her drink- noise in the background she writes something]
CW: I guess…when the… do you think the media realizes that they have such an impact on?
CA: Oh I know the media knows! My editor told me he who has the most ink wins the battle. He told me that straight up one time. So to not cooperate with the media, to stay isolated is something that does have a negative impact because if you don’t have the ink you are not there. That is what he told me.
CW: So you think it would benefit the Hispanic community a lot to get more stories out there?
CA: Yes, but I think that the coverage is going to be a little tricky there because it is hard to cover outside your cultural group. So I think ideally that you would have someone from that particular population covering those and other stories with that unique perspective. The reality is that the reporters in this area have been almost overwhelming white with a few African American professionals in the journalism field and at least one Native American that I recall. And you can cover stories outside your specific knowledge base, maybe I shouldn’t say knowledge base, birth base. But you need to have the knowledge.
So I have written for publications that are outside of my ethnic group, for instance I have written for African American publications, but on general interest topics, for instance, consignment. And that’s not specific to any culture or race anyone could consign items: clothing, children’s toys that sort of thing. But I would never attempt to write an article about what it feels like to be a black woman in America because I could never know that.
CW: Do you think that the Hispanics have tried to blend in?
CA: I think on some levels yes and within some households’ yes. I know that my friend, and I use that term rather loosely she was a little older but the girl that went to high school with me who was Hispanic. Had a last name that was “Osian” and I know that it troubled her that her younger siblings said that the name was “Osian” (but pronounced like Ocean). They said that the name was Ocean because that sounded more American and it would seem that they would blend better. But I do know that even younger generations, the ones in my son’s age group, carrying that same name and almost certainly part of that same family that settled here during my high school years are using Osian again so at one point there was a wish to blend, and now they embrace the name as it originally was pronounced.
CW: Do you think that reflects…or I guess what do you think that reflects?
CA: I think everyone wants to fit in, and be a part, and feel like they belong. And there are different ways to do that. Once you feel like you do belong then maybe you can be special and different and stand out in some way but first you have to be accepted. And I think some of the accommodations made by Hispanics in the area are in an effort to just be accepted and fit in before they then feel comfortable enough to express their own views and express a pride in who they are and where they came from.
CW: Ok well thank you for conducting this interview with me. It was very good.
CA: Ok thank you.