Celebrating Latinx Heritage Month: Our Stories Part One

As Latinx Heritage Month comes to a close, we’d like to share some reflections from Nellie Mae staff and board members on what their heritage means to them. Read these personal and important stories below.

Delia Arellano-Weddleton, Director of Engagement and Partnerships: Mi Historia

I identify as Mejicana, Chicana and Latina and I often deal with the tension that comes from being a first-generation American. There is an expression — ‘Ni de aqui, ni de alla’ which describes how I often feel. I don’t always feel that I belong in this country, but I know that I don’t belong in Mexico either.

My family comes from Guanjuato Mexico and belongs to the Guamare Indigenous community. That history gives me great pride and strength. I come from a line of warriors that have had to overcome many challenges.

I value showing up as who I am 100%, be it my accent, my brown skin or the straight hair that connects me to my indigenous roots.

I find pride in the stories that have been passed down to me, whether it is about curranderas or stories that show the strength of my people. These stories give me strength.

I find great joy, knowing that I’ve fulfilled my parents’ American dream and that they can look down and say’ ‘mija you have done us well’. I find joy in passing the torch to my children, nieces, and nephews so that we don’t lose our stories.

The youth give me eseperanza. Historically, social movements have been led by youth and there are many great examples of how Chicanos, Latinos have been leading change. For example, the 1968 high school walk outs in LA, the Young Lords, and the farm worker huelgas.

Youth are having the difficult conversations that other generations haven’t had, whether it is about LGBTQ rights, anti-Blackness in the Latinx community or climate change. They are our hope and I’ll always support them.

Marcos Lucio Popovich, Program Director of Grantmaking: My Reflections

My family comes from San Luis Potosi and Jalisco, Mexico. For several generations (probably beginning in the late 1800s), my family began traveling from Mexico to harvest crops throughout the United States. They were migrant farmworkers working in Texas, Ohio, Oregon and everywhere in between, picking cotton, tomatoes, plums. My grandmother would say that they were not rich in material things, but that they were rich in faith, rich in family, and rich in culture. She taught me to be proud of being Mexican, of being Mexicano, even when the world told us otherwise. She taught me to be proud of our culture, language, and history, and to be proud of the many contributions we’ve made to the U.S. even though it is not written in our history books.

I’m proud of our resilience and work ethic, our courage to risk it all to create a better life for our families. I pray that when the history is written about our current times that we don’t forget to recognize the contributions of migrant farmworkers during this pandemic. They fed our country while working under dangerous conditions.

When I went to college, I met other Latinos that shared similar experiences: Puerto Ricans, Peruvians, Dominicans, Salvadorans. While we each had our own unique histories and cultures, we realized that we faced similar challenges, had similar interests, and that by creating a bond across our various cultures, we could create power, political power, power that can effectuate change. “In unity, there is strength” was our motto. “In unity, there is strength.”

I carry that with me today. No matter what we call ourselves, Hispano, Latino, Latinx, Chicano, Borinquen, we are stronger when we are united. And, we need to continue to find ways to bridge divides, build community, be inclusive and grow the movement for our collective liberation.

Latinos will soon make up 30% (2050) of the U.S. population. My hope is that we foster a people that knows and remembers its history, maintains its pride in its culture and language, rejects assimilation and welcomes acculturation, has opportunities to thrive and succeed, and charts a new and better path forward. The next generation of activists brings me hope that this is possible. “Si, se puede.” Yes we can!

While Latinx heritage month ends after today,

we think it’s important to celebrate Latinx heritage year round. Therefore, look out for the next part in our series coming soon.

Additionally, we understand that language is ever-evolving — and how individuals with Latinx heritage describe themselves varies. We understand this complexity and invite you to learn more here.

Guest Post: “Staying Proximate” to Advance Racial Equity

This guest post was written by Matt Leighninger, Vice President of Public Engagement at Nellie Mae grantee Public Agenda.

While incidents of bias and discrimination can occur anywhere, it’s especially troubling when they happen in our schools. To help educators, students, and other community members address these issues, Public Agenda has created “Addressing Incidents of Bias in Schools: A Guide for Preventing and Reacting to Discrimination Affecting Students.” This resource, which was developed with the support of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, provides a framework for discussion and action, along with advice on how to use the guide in classrooms, staff meetings, after-school programs, and school-wide events.

The type of dialogue that this Guide helps facilitate involves bringing together a large, diverse group of people, and having smaller discussion sessions within the group, as we saw happen in a high school in Portland, Maine. There, students and faculty used the Guide to organize a community dialogue event following a racially-motivated incident outside of the school.

How does this type of event and conversation help us make progress toward racial equity? Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative calls this “getting proximate and staying proximate.” By this he means that people of different backgrounds need to talk with each other, work together, and get an up-close look at the everyday challenges each of them face, in order to minimize the misunderstandings and maximize the many benefits that cultural diversity can bring.

Getting proximate

“Getting proximate and staying proximate” may be helpful for understanding the recent history of public engagement on issues of race and difference. During the 1990s, we “got proximate.” Following trials involving Rodney King and then O.J. Simpson, in an effort to help overcome community divisions and prevent public debates from being dominated by extreme voices, a wave of local public engagement efforts swept the nation, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of diverse citizens in forums, trainings, workshops and small-group dialogues.

These conversations, which included teachers, police officers, social workers, city planners, and more, led to changes large and small, from adjustments in police hiring policies to new economic development plans, from new extracurricular activities to the construction of public schools, and from police-sponsored basketball leagues to new police substations. But we didn’t build in ways for large, diverse numbers of people to “stay proximate,” and this limited the long-term impact of the work, as demonstrated by the re-emergence of highly visible forms of racism in the last five years.

How to stay proximate

While getting proximate on issues of race had many positive outcomes, it had only limited impacts on systems, or more accurately on the ways in which people interact with public institutions. The tactics of small-group dialogue, comparing lived experience, proactive network-based recruitment, and collaborative action were not incorporated into the way that official public meetings are structured, or even the way that crime watch groups and neighborhood associations operate. In most places, they are not part of the standard operating procedures for police departments or school systems.

In the absence of these more systemic changes, the benefits of public engagement on race may have been meaningful but temporary. Certainly the fraying of police-community relations, evidence of racial profiling by officers, and the persistence of race-based achievement gaps in student test scores do not demonstrate great progress in our efforts to build more cohesive and equitable communities.

We are are entering the next stage in our long-running attempt to realize the full potential of the most diverse nation on earth. Building on our prior work to get proximate, there are several ways we might try to stay proximate:

  • Identify, create, or support regular opportunities for people to come together to make decisions, solve problems, and build community. There are inspiring examples large and small, like On the Table in Chicago, Meet and Eat in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and the dialogues held by the Portsmouth (NH) City Council.
  • Embrace and adapt new practices that reinvigorate existing engagement opportunities, like the student-led parent-teacher conference, high-impact volunteering, and participatory budgeting.
  • Take a serious, systemic view of local engagement: map the current systems for engagement in a place, figure out what is working and what isn’t, and come up with cross-sector plans. We should use a racial equity lens in these analyses, to understand whether and how the participation is inclusive and the outcomes are just and equitable.
  • Offer programming content — meeting agendas, short videos, discussion questions, readings — for people meeting in all these settings to help them raise and address issues of cultural difference.

These are all strategies for helping people stay proximate, but some of them do not explicitly address racial equity, at least at first. That’s all right: by creating safe spaces for people to talk about their experiences and who they are, various kinds of cultural differences will emerge. In these settings, when people are comfortable being open about the differences between them — gender or class, for example — they are better able to surface and address all kinds of differences. So for example, people in small towns where there is very little racial diversity can productively address racial equity, especially if they start out with the differences that are more central in their daily lives.

People are showing their willingness to get proximate and make progress. We should capitalize on that goodwill by establishing sustained opportunities for them to stay proximate.