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Black Latino Unity Picnic (copy)

A girl gets her face painted at a previous Black-Latino Unity Picnic. This year's event was held on Sunday.

“That’s the way racism is maintained in the city of Madison: through economics.”

“They take fathers from their homes.”

“We don’t get paid the appropriate wages.”

These may sound like soundbites from a political forum, but the setting for these statements was a community picnic on Sunday.

Throughout the years, the annual Black-Latino Unity Picnic has provided a chance to gather as a community, take in spoken word and live music, and talk about issues that matter to the local African-American and Latino communities.

The event, held Sunday at the Madison Labor Temple, was hosted by the Immigrant Workers Union and the nonprofit Festival de la Independencia de Mexico.

“It’s a picnic dedicated to taking the two most marginalized groups in the community, to bring unity among them,” said Will Holt, a member of three-man rap group Introspective Prodigies, who performed at the event.

Informational tables set up by organizations like Freedom, Inc., Fair Housing Center and the city of Madison Department of Civil Rights offered information about services and opportunities. There was also plenty of time for fun at the picnic, with free food, face paint and family activities.

“It’s good to get out and about,” said artist Monis Allen, who performed at the picnic.

But even some of the entertainment pointed to the issues facing the African-American and Latino communities, like a spoken word piece by Damion Catledge.

“Loud, wild, proud, Black and brown,” he said.

“We came a long way

We won’t never stop

That’s just not our way

Think what we could be

With unity.”

After the entertainment, there was a time of public discussion, with topics chosen by the audience.

Cindy Bridges said the picnic’s discussion is a good way to bring awareness to important topics like the prison system and deportation. She has friends affected by both.

“Change needs to happen,” she said.

Catledge agreed that the discussion is an important element of the event. He said that although he’s not originally from Madison, he wants to know what’s going on and what people are concerned about.

“To be awake is to be alive,” he said.

People could vote on subjects like police brutality, housing, Trump and the rise of the alt-right. The three top topics were education, jobs and prison system/deportation. Audience members had a chance to step up to the mic during a short discussion time to share opinions, facts and experiences. Speakers were translated into Spanish or English.

“This is where the event gets real, my friends,” said co-organizer Alex Gillis.

One attendee talked about the challenges of finding affordable housing on his wage of $8.50 an hour. He urged the younger members of the audience to stay in school and away from drugs and alcohol.

Others brought up social justice issues in other parts of the nation.

“You know what really pisses me off?” said Mauricio Maluff Masi. “You’ve been hearing about the hurricane in Texas right now. And they chose not to close checkpoints,” he said, referring to the decision to keep immigration checkpoints open during Hurricane Harvey.

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“They care more about their documents than whether they’re able to survive the hurricane,” he said.

Gillis talked about reasons African-American and Latino communities need to unify, pointing to systems that put communities of color in the crosshairs.

“(If we are) poor, don’t have papers, are black, clearly we are the target of many attacks,” Gillis said.

But he also acknowledged current divisions between African-American and Latino communities. Gillis said those divisions can start with stereotypes each population may have about the other.

“I know this is uncomfortable,” he said, as he referenced stereotypes, like the falsehood that all Latinos in the community are undocumented. “We also have to start telling our neighbors, our relatives that all we can be at the same table, breaking bread.”

Audience members suggested using arts and entertainment to better understand each other's cultures, as well as greater personal understanding.

“I think if we understood everyone's background, you wouldn’t be able to judge the other person,” one attendee said.

The picnic has been going on for nine years, organized by Gillis and Clarissa Pearson. This year’s attendance was lower because of the weather and change of location: the event usually takes place in Penn Park, but the park is under construction this year.

But Pearson and Gilles were still plenty busy throughout the event, acting as emcees, ushering attendees to the discussion and encouraging them to share their points of view. Pearson said she likes to use the event as a chance to help make connections and help people network. 

That worked out in favor of audience member Masi, who came for the first time this year because he’s felt disconnected from his community since moving to Madison a few years ago. Sunday helped him feel a little more connected, he said, and he got to meet a lot of people.

That kind of interaction makes the work worth it for Pearson.

“I’m also a social worker,” she said. “I’m a people person.”