Yes, the food is wonderful. And, yes, the Hispanic population in the United States is far more diverse than many non-Hispanics realize. But one of the great strengths of this rapidly rising minority population is its resilience in overcoming barriers to reach the nation’s educated middle class.
That was the conclusion of five University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) staff members who came together on Sept. 23 for an online panel discussion, entitled “Diversity and Belonging in the Latinx Community,” to mark Hispanic Heritage Month. The participants talked about the challenges, misconceptions and stereotypes that they and other Hispanic Americans face growing up in the United States.
Massiel Leech, who was born in the Dominican Republic, came to the United States when she was 9 years old. She is now the organization effectiveness learning manager in UMGC’s human resources office. She described being raised in the Dominican Republic by her mother, so poor that their home had no kitchen or bathroom. In the United Stated, she worked with her mother and grandmother cleaning houses. The smell of Windex evokes her childhood memories.
Leech talked about the challenge of learning a new language and succeeding in high school so she could attend college. She had to scrounge up the money to pay for her education. She said her mother sacrificed much to help her along.
“These people work like human mules,” she said, her voice choking up as she talked of Hispanic immigrant parents. “They work two jobs so that their kids can have a better future and go to school and accomplish their dreams. Many of us don’t realize what they sacrificed, but it makes me so proud.”
Leech said that sacrifice is what motivates her to help other up-and-coming Hispanic students. She also makes a point of ensuring that her daughter understands what has taken place so that she can live the life she has.
Mariana Quadra, a human resources business partner at UMGC, grew up in the D.C. area in a family from Peru. She said she almost left college when she ran out of money to live on campus. The more she talks to Hispanic students at UMGC, the more she realizes how common this is.
“Some of them have gone through homelessness to earn their education,” she said. “They have paid a price beyond what you can imagine. That’s resiliency. We don’t let our current situation determine our future. We realize we can do better, and we are here to do better.”
What are the common misconceptions that Hispanics face in the United States, asked Natasha Rodriguez? Rodriguez directs UMGC’s multicultural training and diversity programs and moderated the panel sponsored by the university’s Office of Diversity and Equity.
“Everyone from Latin America is automatically a Mexican,” said Ariel Rosales, UMGC’s director of global compensation, who was born in New York City of Mexican parents. Raised in the Bronx, he was surrounded by a microcosm of Latin America.
“I grew up in a litany of Latin American countries, mostly Caribbean. I grew up with Dominican food and Puerto Rican food. I married a Dominican,” he said. “But coming to Maryland, everyone assumes that all of us are Mexican.”
The panelists talked about how many people assume all Hispanics have the same color skin and speak with same accent.
“Within my culture, we come in all different shades that you can imagine of skin tone, which is beautiful,” said Leech.
Rodriguez said she had personal experience with that one-dimensional view of how a Hispanic should look. “If I had a dollar for every time someone said, ‘Oh, you don’t look Panamanian,’ I’d be rich today,” she said.
Panelists said non-Hispanics too often don’t understand the diversity of the region’s population, its complex history and the widespread origins of the people.
For example, Leech noted that the region has long and deep ties with Asia. “There’s actually a Chinatown near the capital of the Dominican Republic,” she pointed out. “These Chinese immigrants are called Chinese Dominicans, and they speak Spanish just like any other Dominican.”
Francisco Muniz, a senior manager in the student affairs division who is Puerto Rican, detailed how the rich combination of people on his home island grew out of centuries of colonialism.
“We have this mix of African, Taino indigenous people from Caribbean, Spaniards and even from the U.S.,” Muniz said. “It’s what I grew up with. It’s so incredible how it has had such a strong influence on the food, the music and the language. We speak Spanish, but we also speak Spanglish, a combination of languages.”
When the panelists were asked about traditions they hold dear, Christmas was cited repeatedly. Each country or region celebrates it differently.
“Puerto Rico is known for having the longest Christmas in the world, and that’s because we start at Thanksgiving at the end of the Macy’s Day Parade and go to Jan. 6 when we celebrate the Day of the Three Wise Men,” Muniz said. “We have more fireworks on New Year’s Eve than we have on the Fourth of July.”
In addition to Christmas, Rosales said Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—is a big holiday for Mexicans. It is celebrated on Nov. 1 to honor family members and friends who have died. In the United States, it “has morphed into Halloween because of the mess of the mixture of cultures,” he added.
The panelists maintained that Hispanics should celebrate their wide-ranging heritage and teach their children the traditions and the food linked to their origins. Muniz also suggests that more native Spanish speakers gain English proficiency when entering the United States to enhance access and opportunities.
He talked about the language experiences of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens by birth. Both Spanish and English are official languages under the constitution of the Puerto Rican Commonwealth, and English is taught along with Spanish in the island’s schools. However, Spanish is much more widely spoken and most Puerto Ricans are not comfortable with English. This creates difficulties for Puerto Ricans who move to the U.S. mainland.
“The language barrier is a big thing,” Muniz said. “It creates challenges in confidence and in opportunities for financial resources available to them. There’s this stereotype that sometimes makes us feel inferior.”
Muniz said he often feels frustrated that he cannot reach more Hispanic students to help them navigate into and through higher education.
“I sometimes feel helpless when I can’t help a student on my own,” he said. “I always want to make sure that we always have what we need to help our students and not let the language be the biggest issue for them to succeed.”