Every year, millions of Americans of Hispanic descent celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to honor their heritage’s traditions and culture and the contributions made to American society by the Hispanic community.
In celebration of this important month of recognition, we sat down with three EFers for a roundtable conversation about their personal reflections: Gustavo, an Assistant Manager with EF Go Ahead Tours in Boston, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to Florida at age seven; Crystal, a bilingual Traveler Support Specialist with EF Educational Tours in Denver, was born and raised in the Chicago’s suburbs after her parents immigrated from Mexico; and Ismael, a Tour Consultant with EF Educational Tours in Denver, is a former DACA holder.
Read on for their perspectives on the experience of heritage and the meaning of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
What did your Hispanic heritage mean to you and your family growing up?
Heritage has always been a very important part of my life, but I never had a name for it — it was just always intrinsic. My family is originally from Mexico. Although I was born and raised in the United States, I’m still very in touch with my Mexican roots.
Growing up, my mom didn’t speak English, so I learned Spanish as my first language. I didn’t learn English until my older brother started going to kindergarten and began speaking to me in English. As I grew up, I realized that knowing Spanish was part of my heritage, and it was something I became really proud of. I know a lot of people who are Latinx descendants and don’t speak Spanish anymore, so, unfortunately, it can feel like we’re losing part of that heritage.
National Hispanic Heritage Month is a special month because September 16th, which is Mexican Independence Day, is my mom’s birthday as well, so we have to do something big for that! It’s always celebrated in my family. Our tradition is to celebrate the changing of the season with the traditional sweet bread and things that we bring back from our home country.
In my personal life, heritage means that there’s always family around you. You’re barely home before somebody’s knocking on your door, and it’s your uncle whoever, or your tia whoever, and somebody’s coming over with food. As soon as the weather starts getting cold, it means the tamales are coming out, the sweet bread, the hot chocolate. It’s little things like that that I value and cherish.
I’m very proud of my Mexican culture. Spanish is also my first language, and I’m very proud of that. But I was previously a DACA holder — people with DACA were brought to the United States as children, whether they were brought illegally or overstayed a visa. DACA allows them to get a social security number, work legally, and live without the fear of deportation. But even with DACA, I was always very hesitant to tell people about my specific situation. It was ingrained in me from a young age that I had to be careful what I said and who I hung out with because you never know.
So heritage to me is family togetherness, because, like Crystal, I had a lot of family here. We could have cousins and uncles show up on any given day of the week, and I’d meet a new uncle or a new cousin. That was a regular thing, meeting new and interesting family members.
When we moved to the United States, we were the only ones who moved, so my experience was the complete opposite — not having cousins, not having my grandparents, not having my aunts and uncles. Having been a seven-year-old kid moving from one country to another, I’ve found that when I’m in the United States, I feel very Argentinian. When I go back to Argentina to visit all my cousins, it’s the opposite. I am both Argentinian and a United States citizen, so I can be both or neither. The waters get brackish with that blending of the cultures.
Living in the United States with constant reminders of my Hispanic heritage is something that I find very valuable. A couple of nights ago, we made homemade empanadas, which my mom taught me. I’ve also held cooking classes for my team, where I’ve taught them how to make traditional Argentinian food.
What impact has your Hispanic heritage had on your relationship with learning, your education, and your career?
My background had a huge impact on what I decided to do. Growing up, my parents always instilled in us — my two older sisters and me — that we had to do better than them, we had to be better than them. It was expected of us, and as little kids, we struggled to understand why that was. But we saw growing up that people from our culture, from our background, for whatever reason, whether it’s systemic racism or other hurdles, it’s harder. Growing up in a lower socioeconomic area that really impacted me. I wanted to be successful financially. I wanted to make sure I would be able to help take care of my parents when they got older. They don’t have 401Ks or IRAs, so it was really important for me to succeed.
Like Ismael, for me, success wasn’t optional, it was expected. You need to get good grades; you need to go to college; you need to get that diploma; you need to study. My mother would tell me, “I don’t want you to end up like me. I don’t want you to work at a factory.” She was always pushing us to go to school, take an interest in extracurriculars, be like the other kids so that we could have a better chance down the road.
One of the most important things was learning Spanish. She said, “You’re learning Spanish, and you’re learning it well.” She instilled in me a love of languages, which is why I’m a language nerd now. I studied Mandarin in high school because I was fascinated with challenging myself and understanding other people. And when I went off to college, I started learning Russian. My mother was always saying, “Do it! Learn another language! Go out there, see what you can do!”
My goal was to leave my bubble. I was going to break that barrier to say that I made a difference for my family, and I helped my family get out of where they were. Thankfully we’re in a very different position now, and education has been a huge part of that. I’m grateful now, but growing up, it was difficult. I was always under pressure. When I was at college as a first-gen student, I didn’t have the support that most of my fellow students had. No one in my family went to college. No one knew how to help me struggle through it. I would have breakdowns, but I had to figure out how to pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going.
I learned independence from a young age, but I also made it because I had support from my parents. Even if it wasn’t the support that I needed, it was the best support they could provide. That’s something I’m grateful for, but, like Ismael, growing up, I didn’t understand it. I was like, “Why? Just let me be a child.” But I’m grateful for it now.
Did growing up knowing that your family had a deep connection to another part of the world impact your understanding of traveling?
I grew up in Chicago, a super diverse place, and never really thought about traveling. It wasn’t financially possible for us. We grew up in a low-income home. It wasn’t something that was ingrained from the beginning; all your focus is on getting good grades and trying to graduate.
When I started studying Mandarin in high school is when I first started thinking about the world. I was able to study abroad in Russia in college, and I came back with a completely different mindset. Working at EF has been amazing for that — I’ve been able to travel to other places, and my brother has been able to travel with me. This company has given me so many opportunities to see the world, and it allows me to talk to so many people who probably didn’t think traveling was a possibility, but then they find out that it is, it can be. It’s my responsibility now to help people see beyond the United States and take advantage of that passport.
Every generation of my family has decided to move to a new country for the past four generations. We are in the United States now, but before that. it was Argentina, and before that, on my dad’s side, it was Poland and Russia, and on my mom’s side, it was Romania and France. My family has had a history of needing to move. Anytime something bad happened in the place they were living, they said, “I can either stay here and have my family be in danger, or I can make something of nothing, so let’s go on an adventure.”
It’s been really impactful for me to travel to all of my heritage sites. Seeing where your roots come from ties you to who you are, why you are here, and how you came to be here. Because when I trace back my family heritage and the struggles they had during their times, it makes our times look like a breeze.
My family has never been into traveling. They didn’t really talk about traveling abroad, speaking different languages, experiencing different cultures. I couldn’t travel back to Mexico because I had DACA; I couldn’t leave the country.
Working for EF and seeing the value that travel has for students, which I wasn’t able to do, it broadens their horizons. I know we say that lot — broaden your horizons through experiential learning — but it really does happen. To give students the opportunity to travel the world, see different places, eat different kinds of food, and see that there’s more to the world than your little slice of Earth, it’s so impactful. It’s something that I was never able to do myself, and I could also say that for a lot of my family members.
How do you connect your Hispanic heritage to your community, whatever and wherever that community may be?
Moving from one country with customs and cultures to a new country with its own customs and cultures, what you keep and what you adapt is interesting. Take Thanksgiving, for example. We never ate turkey in Argentina. We didn’t know how to cook it, but our neighbors came to our door with a huge turkey our first year here, so you try it. Maybe you end up saying turkey’s not for us; we’d rather make Asado and chimichurri. Rather than trying to make traditional American foods, we would use Thanksgiving as a time to make our traditional empanadas but grab some deli turkey to throw in it. We’d find reasons to blend the cultures and keep doing what we loved to do in Argentina and find ways that adapted to the United States.
When I came to Boston, it was really easy to create a new community at EF, but the city itself lacks diversity. You can find diversity outside Boston, so I started to look up Facebook groups like Argentinos en Boston. We’d get together to watch Barcelona matches against Real Madrid, Messi, and the national team. I built a community with people with the same background as me. It’s out there; you just have to seek it for yourself. As an immigrant, you don’t expect things to fall in your lap. You can’t expect your community to just happen — you have to seek it yourself.
I grew up in a very diverse community with people from all over the world. Chicago is ridiculously diverse; whether you’re in the city or the suburbs, you’re surrounded by people from many different backgrounds. For me, that provided a kind of respite. There were so many people from different cultures coming together. I wasn’t lost trying to fit into somebody else’s culture; it was more that each of us was celebrated for bringing something different to the table. I went to a predominantly white university, and there was very little celebration of culture and heritage. So, we became the people who promoted our culture, celebrated our heritage, and tried to expose people to different aspects of our lives that they might not be aware of.
As Gustavo said, you have to build up your community. You don’t just expect it to happen; we have to make it happen. You make a community wherever you are.