For as long as I can remember, I’ve always made it a point to let people know of my heritage, because I am an immigrant from Mexico. With family support, many sacrifices, grit, perseverance and a lot of hard work, I have attained the American dream. I have a law degree from a top tier law school, I was a successful partner in a large law firm, I was a successful executive at Fortune 50 companies, and now, I have my own business and am paying it forward in my role as Executive Director of Law School Yes We Can.
But as long as I can remember, at each and every stage of my life and career, people have said to me: “But, you don’t look Mexican,” and “You don’t have an accent.” Seriously? Yes, people still say that.
While I could get offended, I take an educational approach, which helps build bridges, especially during these difficult times. I explain that Latinos are not a homogenous group, but a very diverse community from many countries with a variety of languages and dialects. I explain that, despite the socially and politically polarized rhetoric about immigration, as a successful Latina, I am not “an exception,” but one of the many Latina leaders in our country. For example, you can see the current list of top Latinas from across all areas of our economy in Latino Leaders Magazine.
I remember as a child and teenager, debating with my father, as to why he was trying so hard to have us maintain our heritage, our culture, and our language, during a period when it created difficulties in school and our neighborhood. You see, the English first movement was at its peak. I argued for assimilating enough to attain the American dream, but preserving and honoring the values and culture of our homeland, Mexico. I wanted the best of both worlds. As I look back, I think that, in his own way, my father was telling me that I could have both, but it was important to not lose sight of where I came from, and what my culture had to offer this country.
So many of the traditions in this country have their roots in immigrant cultures, just think of food. Initially, American cuisine was influenced by Europeans and Native Americans. Today, there are styles of cooking specific to a region. Southern-style cooking is often called “American comfort food” and includes dishes such as fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread. Tex-Mex, popular in Texas and the Southwest, is a blend of Spanish and Mexican cooking styles and includes items such as chili and burritos.
Now, more than ever, thought leadership around diversity, equity, and inclusion advocates for acculturation versus assimilation. In other words, we can have the best of both worlds. Like other communities who have emigrated to America, Latinos add flavor to American society with our food, music, culture, and substantial economic contributions.
I’d like to take a few moments to share some of the cultural traditions and values of the Latino community that I cherish to this day.
Family is first and foremost. We may be in school, we may have jobs, we may have our own family. We may be stretched so thin and, in another state or country, but we will fly, drive, walk our way to be there… to help our family, no matter what.
We respect, value, and honor our elders. We know that our elders are wise and provide us with proven “remedios” (natural medicine), “consejos,” (advice based on the stories of our ancestors) and las “Abuelas” (Grandmothers) will use the “chankla” (their shoe) to get our attention and keep us headed in the right direction, no matter our age.
And, every job is an important job. We are wise enough to know that even the lowest level job is an important job. And, that is why Latinos are disproportionately suffering the impact of Covid-19. So many of our families are frontline service sector and essential worker employees. I always tell people that my first job, in 7th grade, was cleaning the bathroom, mopping the floors, and organizing the cards in a Hallmark store. Fast forward all these years, the social skills that I learned in that Hallmark store helped me become the successful lawyer, executive, leader, and entrepreneur that I am today.
But, some may say it’s hard to understand the Latino or many other cultures in our country. Again, I vote for an educational approach. I’ll never forget when my husband traveled with me to the small rural town in Michoacan, Mexico where I was born to meet my extended family. When we were on our way back from this trip he looked at me and said: “I totally get you now… I understand why you get so sad and miss your family… it’s part of your culture.” Yes, it is, it’s who I am.
Please join me in celebrating the many traditions, values, music, food and highlights during Hispanic Heritage Month. And, in the spirit of inclusion, I encourage you to celebrate the traditional of your culture too.