National Hispanic Heritage Month Q&A

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Each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month offers the opportunity to celebrate the culture and contributions of Hispanic and Latinx people in the U.S. This year’s theme, Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation, is meant to showcase the diversity of this population.  

In observance of this important celebration, INSIGHT recently spoke with several Hispanic and Latinx members of the higher education community about their unique experiences and what Hispanic Heritage Month means to them.

Alexis Fintland is a 2022 graduate of Cornell University, where she majored in industrial and labor relations. Fintland is a first-generation Cuban American.

Andrea Guzmán Oliver, EdD, has served as the associate vice president for student outreach and diversity at Florida Atlantic University since 2014. She was born in the U.S. to Puerto Rican parents.

Gavin Mariano is a doctoral student at Indiana University (IU) Bloomington studying higher education leadership with a minor in Latino studies. He also serves as the president of the Latine* Graduate & Professional Student Union. Mariano is a second-generation Mexican American.

Christina Torres García, PhD, is an assistant professor of communications and the director of the Latino and Latin American Studies Program at Central Washington University. She was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. as a child.

Editor’s note: The following responses have been edited for clarity and length. 

Can you describe your experience in higher education as a Latinx individual?

Fintland: During my first year of college, I felt incredibly lost and overwhelmed. I was far from home and felt disconnected from my cultural roots. On top of that, I was constantly questioning if I was good enough to be there compared with the rest of my peers. The Cuban American Student Association was the first group I joined on campus — a smaller student group that really felt like home. In the midst of a hectic Thursday, I could escape to the fourth floor of the Latina/o Studies Program building and grab some cafecito. As I took on more academic and extracurricular responsibilities, I found myself returning to the same space to unwind and reaching out to the same Latino professors for support and guidance. 

Guzmán Oliver: If I had to summarize my experience, I would say that it has been a bumpy road, yet very rewarding. As a product of Detroit Public Schools, the first in my family to attend college, and growing up in a home where I only spoke Spanish as a child, I can relate to and empathize with many of the challenges experienced by students of color, particularly Latina/o/x students of similar backgrounds and experiences.   

Mariano: It has been an ongoing endeavor because going to college was never an “ordinary” experience for me. In high school, I was one of four boys living with a single mother. Getting by was the biggest of our concerns. Back then, my Latino identity was not salient to me. Even with dead-end grades, my proud Boricua guidance counselor fought to help me make it to IU as a first-generation student. With the success of earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree — and now in a PhD program — came the embrace of my ethnicity and the benefits and challenges that came with it.

What are some of the challenges you have faced and overcome?

Guzmán Oliver: Some of these challenges I have faced and overcome and some I continue to face.  I have been perceived as not being “prepared” for upward mobility due to lack of experience and not being capable of effectively leading because I am a single mother. I have been excluded from conversations and decision-making even when it clearly aligns with my area of expertise. Or I am included as an afterthought when the desired result is not achieved.

I am exposed to sexual innuendos and, in some cases, inappropriate behaviors. Typically, I am one of few women in leadership or at certain conferences, so I experience quite a bit of “mansplaining” or I am overtly dismissed as if I don’t belong at the table. I have to maintain a very high level of emotional intelligence to avoid being seen as the angry Latina, but I can’t be too friendly or I risk being sexualized.

The lack of representation of executive-level Latinas can feel isolating. You are often treated as the spokesperson for all Hispanic/Latina/o/x people at your organization and as a result feel pressure to represent them well and to be successful.

Mariano: I have experienced imposter syndrome, outright racist attacks, and countless microaggressions. “Invisibility” probably describes it best. Even now, with all my life experience and my advanced degree endeavors, those feelings never went away — they just diminished a bit in part due to the changing zeitgeist and progressive attitudes of IU and society in general.

Torres García: I am a Mexican immigrant from a farmworking background who spent my childhood selling goods in the streets of Tecomán, Colima. In the U.S., where I attended middle school, I soon realized how impersonal the education environment could be as I experienced it through a special education program and later through the English-as-a-second-language track. I realized that my language, traditions, and culture had no value in our educational institutions. My identity started trembling, until I met with a Latina advisor. She understood my history, community, fears, and positionality, and its intersections of systemic oppression. 

During college, I felt like an imposter and an outcast around dominant narratives regarding who is an “American” and who is not. These dominant narratives were again highly emphasized during the anti-immigration climate of the Trump administration, rooted in racist, nativist rhetoric. 

Currently, as I explore the faculty path, there is a constant reminder that I am one of only a few Latina faculty at this institution. This reminder is not only when other colleagues send their Latinx students for me to mentor but also when I participate in committees and advocate for minoritized students. This work can be exhausting. As I advocate for change, my voice sounds so quiet, as if it is coming from the end of a tunnel. Luckily, I have been able to create a community here at CWU, from my Latinx peers to my advocates and mentors.

What should colleges and universities, especially predominantly White institutions (PWIs), do to support their Hispanic and Latinx populations on campus?

Fintland: Fund their programs. This includes investing in Latinx professors who will stay and build up Latina/o studies programs at universities. Following my graduation, I found out that seven joint and affiliated faculty members from the Latina/o Studies Program were retiring or leaving Cornell. When I sat down with one, they told me it was because they were not being paid enough. I find this to be incredibly disheartening and damaging to both the Latinx students at Cornell and the department at large. 

For students, these professors are vital for building community and belonging. It is essential for colleges and universities to take the time to truly invest in these programs and allocate sufficient funds to hiring professors to teach Latina/o studies classes. As Latino students, we deserve to learn and connect with our history while accessing mentors who best understand us.

Guzmán Oliver: In order for PWIs and other institutions to ensure they are properly supporting Latinx students, they need to truly know and understand them. It sounds simplistic, but so often institutions fail to recognize that their Latinx students may be very different from those of another institution and therefore success strategies cannot be interpreted as transferrable. Colleges and universities need to determine how many are first-generation students, the first in their families to be born in the U.S., low-income, raised speaking Spanish, attended Title I schools, grew up in a single-parent home, or have military ties. I would also challenge colleges to look even deeper and determine how many are Afro-Latino versus Euro-Hispanics, how many have parents who entered as refugees and have a strong belief in the American Dream, and how many have been here for generations and are affected differently by systemic racism and discrimination. All of these questions will yield responses that will allow the university to develop programs and holistic support that effectively serve the needs of their Latinx students instead of implementing strategies that work at other institutions.

Mariano: Institutions should officially embrace “Latine” as a gender nonbinary and inclusive term instead of using it sporadically in student organizations. Furthermore, they should stop confining the recognition of the Latine heritage to just 30 days in the fall, by just celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. Perhaps most importantly, colleges and universities should stop having tacos and salsa dancing as the hallmark of all Latine heritage events.

Why do you think it is so important to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?

Fintland: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month is an important reminder of how diverse and far-reaching the Latino community is. While often forgotten or not taught in school, our history reveals how much we have persevered. Hispanic Heritage Month helps create a space where we can reflect on our struggles and celebrate our successes. At the same time, it is a very important opportunity to educate others.

Guzmán Oliver: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month is beneficial for two predominant reasons. It validates the experience of Hispanic and Latinx Americans and acknowledges their contributions to the success of our country. It also serves to educate non-Hispanic and non-Latinx Americans of these contributions and challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions of Hispanic and Latinx Americans.  

Torres García: Considering that history has not highlighted the contributions of BIPOC — including Hispanics, Latinos, Afro-Latinos, Chicanos, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups — and we continue being nearly invisible in corporate leadership, mainstream politics, and popular culture, and underrepresented in the teaching and faculty positions, I believe Hispanic Heritage Month could provide an opportunity to remind ourselves of the work ahead of us for reaching social equity.

This month brings the opportunity to not only celebrate with some Mexican foods and drinks but to consider the long economic and political history of struggles faced by these individuals  — for instance, to acknowledge the annexation of land before and after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the creation of programs to bring bracero and guest farmworkers to this country, the subjugation of undocumented people within a broken immigration system, and to reflect on the historical inequity entrenched in our institutions.

This article was published in our September 2022 issue.