Pathfinder Mercedes Navarro: Proponent of Diverse Cultural Programs

Pathfinder is a series of blogs about intrepid library staff who are leading interesting programs that you may not yet know about.

San Jose's Mercedes Navarro developed her interest in cultural heritage because of her mother.  Her mother prioritized living in a culturally diverse area.  She wanted her daughter to be proud of her own heritage, “to never forget where you came from.”  In addition, Mercedes’ mother instilled in her a respect for other people and their cultures.

The combination of the respect Mercedes felt for all cultures, including her own, led to her choice in majors at college: cultural anthropology.

San Jose Public Library is fortunate to have staff members like Mercedes who come from various professional backgrounds.

During this moment in history, when many different unsettling events seem to revolve around race and violence, the Library is fortunate to have someone with Mercedes’ background: cultural anthropology.  According to Britannica School, cultural anthropology is the “science of humans.”

As a Family Learning Center Coordinator at Bascom Library, Mercedes puts her cultural anthropology skills to excellent use in selecting and or developing programs that are culturally diverse and significant to her community members.

Mercedes also tells me that her family immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1950’s as migrant farm workers in pursuit of the American Dream.

Mercedes’ Approach to Developing Programs

Mercedes tells me, “The social justice issues that have been brought to light (again) recently (BLM, AAPI hate, Immigrant discrimination at the Mexico/US border towards central Americans fleeing violence, etc.) have really made it clear that more cultural programming in the library is necessary as we promote being a safe and welcoming space for all.”

The promise that the library is a safe and welcoming space for all starts with “welcoming and embracing those who are different from us.”

Mercedes believes that “closing the gap” between the idea of “them vs. us” can only result in decreasing divisiveness.  She says that “differences are beautiful” and that differences should not be the “reason why some are treated better or worse than others.  San Jose is a diverse city and there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to find community members who do amazing yet everyday things.”

As such, Mercedes generates cultural programs utilizing these ideals:

  • Learn about others in a positive way.
  • Celebrate differences.
  • Pass on knowledge that will create and enhance understanding and acceptance for other cultures.
  • Realize that the United States was “founded by immigrants and by people of color, though they continue to be persecuted.”
  • Emphasize positive outcomes, despite barriers, for people of color.

Mercedes would like participants to “gain new perspectives” and experience other cultures that they may not have otherwise experienced.  She says that “we are all humans at the end of the day.”

As a Latinx, Mercedes has sought to introduce programs that will allow members in the community to understand her Latinx culture.

Latinx Programming

Since the start of the pandemic, Mercedes has introduced two Latinx programs during September and October’s National Hispanic Heritage Month:

  • She created “Latinxs; Diverse Experiences,” a short film highlighting the lives and contributions of local Latinx community members.  Each has made a commitment to their communities.  In the film, she asked each participant to answer the following questions:
    • Why did your family leave their country of birth?
    • What is your hope for your family in the future?
    • What traditions have you made an effort to preserve?
  • Mercedes also worked with the De Young Museum to present an “art talk.”  The art docent illustrated how Frida Kahlo, one of Mexico’s most influential artists in modern times:
    • Consciously created her own iconic image, and then looked deeper to reveal the complex person and artist beneath.
    • This lecture accompanied the “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” exhibit, being hosted by the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Not only was Kahlo’s life, work and achievements highlighted but library patrons were made aware of world class art exhibits available to them right here in the Bay Area.

Monthly Cultural Celebrations

Mercedes used the national monthly cultural celebrations to design programs that enlighten and enrich participants’ lives:

  • November 2020: National Native American Heritage Month.  Mercedes “put together a presentation about the “Occupation of Alcatraz (use U.S. History in Context database.)” Using archival news footage and firsthand accounts, she was able to illustrate the 19-month long protest when 89 Native Americans and their supporters occupied Alcatraz Island. This presentation hit extremely close to home as this was a historic event that took place right here in the Bay Area. Mercedes illustrated the determination Native Americans showed in the face of extreme discrimination and how Native Americans continue to face struggles unlike other cultural groups in this country face, while still celebrating their determination, bravery, and culture.”
  • February and March 2021: Black History Month and National Women’s History Month.  Mercedes and her fellow Family Learning Center Coordinators “saw the need for an increase in cultural programs that could highlight more community members of color. The Coordinators not only wanted to highlight community contributions but also to highlight the disparities or hardships they’ve faced that are unique to them because of their gender or race.” Some of those speakers included:
    • Female African-American business owners who were able to start their business despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • A first generation female Mexican-American who became a doctor from San Jose.
    • A female Mexican-American personal protective equipment (PPE) business owner who started her business at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to help those in her community.
    • A female African-American professor/doctor from San Jose State University who spoke on the history of black people and medicine in the US, just to name a few.
  • May 2021: Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.  Mercedes and her fellow coordinators will be:
    • Hosting another Speaker Series featuring different community members, their views, their experiences, and the positive work they’ve done for those around them.
    • In addition to the speakers, Mercedes is also working with local AAPI culinary artists to create cooking demos. The culinary artists being featured will not only share how to make certain dishes that hold special places in their hearts, but will also share what those dishes mean to them.

Please send me any questions in the comments section below!

Books About Culture

Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, book cover
Libraries, Human Rights, and Social Justice, book cover
Finding Latinx In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity, book cover
Black History More Than Just A Month, book cover
U.S. Women's History Untangling the Threads of Sisterhood, book cover
25 events that shaped Asian American history : an encyclopedia of the American mosaic /, book cover