Evelyn Rivas remembers the first time she tried spaghetti at her elementary school cafeteria.
“It was like the best thing ever,” she laughed.
But, when she tasted really good spaghetti at a friend’s house in Huntingburg and realized how easy it was to make, she had to share it with her Salvadoran parents. “I was like ‘guys, making this takes less than half an hour,'” she said asking rhetorically if people realize how long it takes to make tamales. “I know they (tamales) are great but, my gosh, you wake up to start at 4 a.m. and maybe by 3 p.m. they are just getting done.”
She added that Anglos are the best at making food seem easy. “You slap some avocado on toast, add bacon and everybody likes it.”
As a first-generation American with immigrant parents in Huntingburg, moments like these were daily cultural bridges Evelyn crossed growing up. Moving between her family’s traditions from El Salvador at home and the Anglo traditions of the largely white community in which she lived formed a type of cultural mobility in her. One that has allowed Evelyn to become part of a cultural bridge in Huntingburg that is creating unity.
Movement and mobility were both a part of her life at an early age. Before moving to Huntingburg to stay, she had lived in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and even in Virginia near Washington D.C.
Her experiences in these moves likely helped her as she learned how to bridge the cultural divide in Southern Indiana. While Huntingburg Elementary lacked diversity with people sharing her Latino roots, she had also attended a school in Houston in which everyone spoke Spanish and there were hardly any Anglo children. In Atlanta, her class was split between African Americans and Latinos. Then in Virginia, the cultural and ethnic make-up of her elementary school was as diverse as you can imagine next to the capital of the United States. “I had a Japanese friend, a Chinese friend, some black friends, Latino friends from Venezuela and Mexico,” she explained. “You know when you are playing on a playground, colors — and I hate to use that term — don’t really matter.”
After so many cities, arriving in rural Huntingburg as a fourth-grader was a shock. “I cried when we got here,” she said. “I remember turning off the interstate and coming up the highway just seeing all the cornfields and just thinking ‘what are we doing here?'”
But she assimilated and crossed those cultural divides and built her own bridges. Maybe unsurprisingly, she decided to get a degree in social work so she could help people and be a community builder. After graduating, she headed to IU with no thoughts about returning to Huntingburg. “I wanted to go to the city,” she said. “I felt like I wanted to give to others. I saw the struggles my parents had faced even living in those cities and that was my goal, to move to a big city and really impact change.”
However, after achieving her bachelor’s in social work she ended up back in Huntingburg. She had been accepted into a master’s program at Michigan State and although she had a scholarship as well, there was a gap in the amount of money she would need. So, she decided to come home and work for about a year before going to Michigan.
She had been working at German American Bank since she was sixteen — even working at a branch in Bloomington as she attended college — and had started a new position as a corporate trainer for the company when Luis Dubon asked her to come to a meeting with the Asociación Latinoamericana del Sur de Indiana, or the Association of Latin Americans in Southern Indiana (ALASI). “I had kind of heard about it and I knew about the festival (Latino Cultural Festival),” she explained.
But there didn’t seem to be a lot of movement with the organization she said. She decided to attend and that led to Lois asking her to help with the Latino Cultural Festival by running the pageant. She didn’t know much about pageants but with the help of friends, mentors and other community members, she was able to pull it off.
That was in September of 2016 and she still had the goal of earning enough money to head to Michigan State but then, in November, Lois — who must have seen her potential — asked her to help lead ALASI.
At about the same time, Evelyn was hired as a corporate trainer for German American Bank.
“In January, I found myself as a 21-year-old suddenly the president of this organization and I was training career-minded people at German American,” she said adding that she had to go back to her sociology books to attempt to figure out how to run a nonprofit. “So, yeah, the first couple months were rocky.”
But then she got invited to meet with Mayor Denny Spinner to talk about other projects going on in the community. She became involved with the Latino Collaboration Table and began immersing herself in other projects in the city including serving on the Huntingburg Chamber of Commerce board.
She saw the work being done in downtown Huntingburg as well as what would become Market Street Park and she began to fall in love with Huntingburg for the first time.
“I didn’t go to finish my masters after that year. I felt like I could do what I was doing for another year,” Evelyn said. “I really enjoyed my job and I was getting my social work fix through being involved in the community.”
It also felt great being included in shaping the culture and future of Huntingburg.
“I felt like I wasn’t making that much of a change but like we say in Spanish, I was adding my own granito de arena, a little grain of sand” Evelyn explained.
She wasn’t naive to the fact that if she moved to a large city to be part of a nonprofit, the change she could potentially take part in would likely be slow.
“How many times do you have the opportunity to connect directly with leaders of that community (city),” she explained. “It’s more common in rural communities.”
As she saw the impact she could make in Dubois County and in Huntingburg, Evelyn realized she could be useful here. She could fulfill that need and that want to serve others. She could be part of something bigger than herself. “I realized that I would have a voice here even though I am young,” she explained.
She didn’t go back to school.
She served as president of ALASI for three years helping to grow the organization and the festival. She continues to work at German American Bank now as the executive assistant, a job that can be described as information logistics for the CEO, president and chairman of the board of the company.
She’s grown accustomed to seeing familiar people in the grocery store, smiling and telling her good morning. She’s comfortable and looking forward to moving out of her parent’s house when she purchases her own home hopefully within the next year.
She attributes a lot of her success to her parents’ expectations for their daughters growing up. In efforts to ensure they didn’t fall into the trap of social or cultural stereotypes, Roberto Rivas and Lilian Ramirez expected their daughters to act and consider things from a more mature and thoughtful perspective at a young age.
You can see the impact of that maturity in the professionalism Evelyn displays daily at her job and in her many roles in the community.
But her parents also kept the Salvadoran culture alive in their home. There were moments in which she and her sister, Francisca, bucked those traditions and some of the demands her parents made of them. One night while eating dinner and talking in English around the table, her father suddenly said, “Ya basta! Meintras vivan en esta casa, van a hablar espanõl.” (That’s enough! While you all live in this house, you will speak Spanish.)
Rather than accepting his demand, she and her sister just refused to speak at the table for a few weeks. Eventually, they succumbed to the mandate. She is glad she did because in her position with German American Bank, she regularly uses the Spanish language.
“I clearly come from these roots that are Salvadoran and I was taught those values, but I also grew up here in the U.S. and in a school system that had American values that, by the way, are not that different than Salvadoran values; they’re essentially the same,” Evelyn said acknowledging the fluidity she has between the cultures. “I think growing up in these two worlds, being exposed to all of that, you know, as a young child, I feel like it probably did shape me.”