Connected by a Common Thread: What Hispanic Heritage Means to MeSeptember 30, 2014
Being Hispanic means I’m part of a community connected by a thread of traditions that transcend generations. It’s about food and the arts, dancing and singing — usually all happening at the same time. It’s about my grandmother’s pasteles (a doughy mass wrapped in plantain and filled with chicken, peas, and garbanzo beans), the salsa three-step that I am still learning to master, and the melancholy but hopeful stories sung by my favorite Latino artists.
I’m proud to be part of this culture, and I spoke with women across different generations who feel the same. Many of them attribute the development of their Hispanic identities to the same traditions I do. As Hispanic women, our traditions connect us, our struggles make us strong, and our successes reinforce our strength.
The Up-and-Coming Trailblazer
Leslie Ramirez, a political science major at Sierra College in Rocklin, California, told me that honoring her heritage means remembering her ancestors who made significant contributions in their communities. She honors them by applying herself at school and in her community. “It is about hard work,” she said.
Ramirez is no stranger to hard work. As the oldest of her sisters and the first of them to attend college, she believes it is important to set an example and not fit a stereotype, especially when you’re taken out of your comfort zone. Going from a heavily populated Hispanic community to being the only girl with brown hair in her college classroom, she felt the pressure of preserving her identity while adjusting to a new culture.
But as she found mentors on her campus and through AAUWs Elect Her–Campus Women Win program, Ramirez learned to shape and own that identity. She began to envision a career in political office, which led her to change majors from psychology to political science and to run for student body president.
“If you told me two years ago that I’d be speaking to a crowd of more than 500 people as a part of my role or talking to donors at fundraising events on behalf of the college, I would have told you no way!” Ramirez laughed. She wants her sisters and mentees to know that there are no limits to what we are capable of.
The Community Organizer
Texas native Melodía Gutiérrez, who traveled to Utah to study political science, shared another story. She believes it’s important to “reach out to your community when you are discovering your identity. They’ll reach back and empower you.”
Community reinforces her definition of being Latina. She told me about one of her biggest successes to date, when she helped gather more than 2,000 people from her area to rally against legislation that would penalize businesses that employ undocumented workers.
Gutiérrez makes it a point to constantly surround herself with people (much like women and men in the AAUW community do) who have helped strengthen her identity and support her fervor for the issues she cares about. She describes this feeling in an excerpt from one of her favorite Sandra Cisneros poems, You Bring Out the Mexican in Me.
You bring out the Dolores del Río in me.
The Mexican spitfire in me.
The raw navajas, glint and passion in me.
The raise Cain and dance with the rooster-footed devil in me.
The spangled sequin in me.
The Passionate Educator
Evelyn Garcia Morales is passionate about education for the public. As an AAUW Career Development Grantee, she built her career around ensuring the educational success of future Latino leaders by creating college enrichment programs.
Her professional world has brought Morales much success, and she says that she does her best to bring her professional life into her private one: She encourages her nieces and nephews to attend college (which aligns with her primary professional role in creating college enrichment programs), constantly reminding them that “education opens doors,” a concept she plans to pass on to her 4-year-old son.
The Do-It-All Feminist
Paying it forward is also important to Michele Villarreal-Kuchta. She wears many hats: mother, wife, attorney, and solo practitioner.
Villarreal-Kuchta has always prided herself as a feminist, especially in her role as an AAUW member trying to recruit more Latinas into her branch. However, she does not believe that having a career and having a family are mutually exclusive:
“One of my favorite parts about being a Latina is tradition, like cooking for my family, which sometimes might contradict the meaning of feminism. It does not make me feel subservient,” she said. “Rather, it brings back memories of family gatherings.”