Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Embracing Culture without Shame
By Bella Mendoza
My mother is a Mexican immigrant. She moved from Zacatecas, Mexico to Los Angeles when she was nine years old without knowing a single word of English. With her, came her big family. Similarly, my dad comes from a long line of Mexican immigrants. My grandma immigrated from Mexico when she was 16 years old and met my grandpa, another Mexican immigrant, and made their home in south Chicago. Although they both come from large immigrant families, they had very different upbringings and experiences growing up in the United States.
Living in South Chicago where racism ran rampant, my dad grew up in the culture of assimilation. Instead of celebrating their heritage, they were forced to erase and conceal it. My grandparents gave my uncles and aunts very American names in an attempt to disguise their Mexican heritage. Instead of being Maria de la Luz, my grandma was Lucy; instead of being Eduardo, my dad was Ed; instead of being Patricía, my aunt was Pattie, and so on and so forth. They were not allowed to speak Spanish outside the household for fear of being hate-crimed or harassed. Although they openly expressed and celebrated their heritage at home and with their extended family, in public, they were forced to pretend that their culture did not exist.
On the other hand, my mom (in California) grew up in a culture that celebrated her heritage, allowing her to be very open about her background. Instead of creating nicknames to hide her identity, my mom and her brothers openly went by their given names; Rodrigo, Javier, Octavio, Jose, Nole, Elsa, etc. Although she did not have much of a choice in the language she spoke (Spanish was my grandparents only language) she did not face major backlash when she spoke Spanish in public. My mom was, and still is, very proud of her background and has never shied away from showing it as she has always been surrounded by a strong group of Latinx folks, a privilege she had growing up in Los Angeles.
The only difference between my mom and dad’s story are their locations and the way the public perceived immigrants. Chicago, being in the midwest, has been very slow to accept immigrants and different ways of life. However, in California there has always been a culture (despite there still being an obscene amount of racism) of acceptance, especially with how close it is to the border.
Times have certainly changed since my parents were growing up. Now, nationwide, most cultures are celebrated and are met with acceptance and respect, instead of disgust and repulsion. Decades after my mom went to elementary school in Pasadena, so did I. There is a striking difference in terms of cultural acceptance from her experience and mine. In elementary school, I was taught about the history of California and the importance Mexican immigrants have in California's economy and history. I was taught and encouraged to speak Spanish in school, we celebrated Dia de los Muertos every year, we learned about the Aztec empire and the mass genocide that occurred thanks to the Spaniards, and much more about Mexican and Hispanic history, heritage, and cultures. These lessons continued on well into my education, eventually encouraging me to major in the Spanish language in college.
Even when I go back to Chicago to visit my family, I see how society's values have changed. There is more acceptance for diverse cultures and willingness to learn about people's ancestry and heritage. My family is no longer afraid to speak Spanish in public as society has begun to openly embrace people's diversity. Instead of shunning away from differences, society has come to embrace them.
My parents have always taught me to embrace my culture and never to be embarrassed of my background. They gave my brothers and I very traditional Mexican names (Marco, Andrés, Esteban, and Isabella) to always tie us back to our culture. Prior to COVID, we would take cultural trips to Mexico, not only to visit family, but also to learn about our ancestral history. Recently, my whole family obtained Mexican citizenship, so we always have somewhere besides the United States to call home.
Although the United States has had a long history of prejudice, over the past decades it has gotten better. This month from September 15th to October 15th, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage and recognize all the amazing contributions Hispanic Americans have brought to American culture. This in and of itself is a huge stride in acceptance and acknowledgment of the millions of Latinx folk that dedicate their lives to contribute to the United States. I am excited to see how society advances in the next decade and have hope that future generations will continue to accept other cultures and embrace our nation's diversity.