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UNLV's Latinx Voices: Jocelyn Cortez, Immigration Attorney

UNLV's Special Collections has been working for several years to collect the stories of the people who have built Southern Nevada into the thriving community it is today.

They have collected the stories of the African-American community and the Jewish community and now, with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they are collecting the stories of Nevada's Latinx community.

“We are focused on the most neglected stories in Las Vegas history and that’s of the Latinx population,” Project Director Barbara Tabach told KNPR's State of Nevada.

There are six bilingual students working on the project. Tabach said the students bring a different perspective to the interviews. 

Monse Hernandez is one of the student researchers working on the project. She is a journalism major but she has to put some of that training aside when she interviews people for the oral history project.

“Oral history is different because it is more personal. You ask them to guide the story,” she said.

One of the people they spoke to is Jocelyn Cortez. She's a Salvadoran-American attorney, who works primarily on immigration cases.

She arrived in Southern Nevada with her family in 1981. They came here to escape the civil war.

"Well, I think the eastside today is different than it was when I first started living there. Because in truth when we first got there I don’t think there were many – you know we’re talking 1981 is when we arrived to Las Vegas – there weren’t many Latinos. And I can say that with confidence because I don’t remember people in my classroom looking like me or being like me. And so it was so unique I think that the school district was still trying to figure out how to deal with Latino kids, bilingual kids to the degree that I was perfectly fluent in English – but in second grade I was put in ESL. I don’t know why. And it was fine because I ended up learning how to be an assistant to the teacher, which was perhaps something that fostered me in what I do today in trying to help. But you know, I was perfectly fluent in English and there I was in ESL class, so – I was a translator. I was an assistant. That was at Halle Hewetson Elementary School."

Jocelyn Cortez

Nathalie Martinez is also a student research assistant on the project. She said Cortez's experience is an example of how quickly Latinx students are judged.

Hernandez agreed. 

“I feel like as a first generation here that experience is pretty universal. I’m first generation as well. I wasn’t put in ESL until I was in 5 th grade because I didn’t pronounce words the same way as my peers,” she said.

She said there is often a pre-determined judgment of first-generation kids that they need help with English.

For many Latinx people, the language they use and when they use it is an important part of their relationships. Cortez talked to the interviewers about the process known as code-switching.

"You have to code switch. I’ve code switched a bunch of different ways, right? From English to Spanish neutral Spanish to Salvi-Spanish. But there’s ways we need to have conversations to make sure that we get changes made.

Question - And you mentioned the generational gap. How would your parents identify themselves?

Cortez; Gee, I don’t know because I think the baby boomer is I think a very U.S.-centric identity. I suppose age-wise my dad would be a baby boomer. My mom’s like a young baby boomer, perhaps. But I don’t know that they identify as much of anything other than Salvadorean immigrants who are approaching retirement and just excited to be grandparents. And they are subscribers to AARP. 

Question - So they wouldn’t consider themselves Latinos or Salvadoran-Americans?

Cortez: I think my dad very much is Salvadoran primero for sure. My mom is a little bit younger  - absolutely Latina. Proud Latina, strong Latina. And of course Salvadoran."

Jocelyn Cortez

“I personally loved this aspect of the interview because coming from Salvadoran heritage myself I know exactly what she means. She refers to English, Spanish and what we call Salvi-Spanish… you can go across Latin America and you have different dialects of Spanish,” Martinez said.

Martinez said the relationships Cortez builds with people is partly dependant on the language that she uses when talking with them.

The conversations with Cortez and others are just the beginning, Tabach said. The project has enough funding for another three years.

Tabach said all of the people they have talked to through the oral history project have similar stories and there is a similar theme of common humanity running through all of them.

“I feel very privileged to have listened and conducted so many interviews to learn about our community and people. How much alike we are in our differences," she said.

Barbara Tabach, Project Director, UNLV's Latinx Voices of Southern Nevada; Monse Hernandez, Research Assistant, UNLV's Latinx Voices of Southern Nevada; Nathalie Martinez, Research Assistant,  UNLV's Latinx Voices of Southern Nevada

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.