Celebrating Latinx Heritage: Our Stories Part Two

Nellie Mae Ed. Fdn.

Nov 22 · 8 min read

Earlier this month, we shared reflections from Nellie Mae staff members about what their Latinx heritage means to them. We are excited to finish this series with reflections from some of our board members.

Dr. Elsa Núñez, President, Eastern Connecticut State University

It is an honor and a privilege to be a Latina woman. Before there was public housing, projects, and places for poor people to live in Puerto Rico, poor people built little shacks by themselves. In San Juan, the area was called “El Fanguito,” which means “the mudflats.” They would stick bars into the mud and extend those bars into the ocean and put planks of wood on top and then build little huts. My grandmother Ramona lived in El Fanguito, and as a little girl I would jump between the planks of wood and look down at the water- people urinated and defecated in that water. And I would run to her little shack. In that shack she raised eight children by herself- she was a single mother. She would take chickens and stretch their head- that’s how I learned what chicken soup was. She made the best chicken soup in the world in that little hut, and she would put some rice in it sometimes — or noodles. From the eggs of the chicken, she would take the whites and make merengue, and it was the best merengue I ever ate. My big bowl of chicken soup and my merengue was the best meal I’ve had — and I’ve eaten in five-star hotels and restaurants. But my grandmother taught me that. She raised my mother, one of her eight children, and her life was full of hope.

My grandmother’s dream came true; my mother married a wonderful man, my father. She hoped that she could get her family out of there. One day, while I was walking in San Sebastian Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised, a man stopped me in the plaza — I was walking with my father, just the two of us bonding, and he stopped us and said, “I have to tell you something about your father.” And I said “what?” and he said “your father borrowed $60 from me for the airplane ride to the United States. Four men borrowed $60 and he was the only one that paid me back.” I looked at my father and we embraced. My father had so much hope that he would get his family out of poverty and that he would bring us to the United States.

I learned from my mother, father, and grandmother what the importance of family is. There is nothing more important in the Latino culture. You do anything you have to for your family, and I’ve given that lesson to my children, and I see them now execute it in their own families and I am so proud. I also am very proud that my grandmother Ramona, my father Paoli, and my mother Carmen gave me the most important thing I’ve had in my life: my Latino heritage. I am so full of hope.

Cristina Jiménez Moreta, Co-Founder and Former Executive Director, United We Dream

For me to be Latina and Latinx is to know my history, my roots, and where I come from. It also means that I am holding the complexity that I come both from Indigenous people and the colonizer. I don’t use the term Hispanic to identify myself because it centers the colonizers more than my indigenous roots, and because of that I’ve been on a journey of reconnecting with my indigenous history.

In this journey I’ve learned that I come from the land of the Quitu-Cara Indigenous people in South America, in Quito, Ecuador. In the US, for many of us who are immigrants of color part of the process is reclaiming our Latinx identity, reclaiming who we are and to be proud of who we are, because everything around us in this country tells us that we don’t belong here and that what we ought to do is to aspire to whiteness. So, a lot of what I connect with Latinidad is reclaiming and reminding myself and our communities that we’re beautiful, we’re worthy, and that we belong here, and that we are worthy of thriving in this country or anywhere else.

The parts of our history, our culture that bring me the most pride are the resilience of indigenous communities that despite genocide and colonization have kept indigenous knowing, rituals, ceremonies, and practices. Another part I’m really proud of is the role that Latinx people have played particularly in this country to bring about change and to really push this country to stand true to aspirational, unfulfilled values of justice and freedom for all. So I always keep in mind the activism and the leadership of young people like the Young Lords, the Chicanx movement, young people in the southwest and on the west coast, the farmworker movements, and many who have paved the way for organizers like me to be here and do this work.

What gives me esperanza and hope are the new generation of Latinx folks that are getting involved and are organizing in their communities. I have had the privilege and the honor to work with many of them, particularly immigrants from across the country, and every time I see the new generation of high schoolers right now or college students who are getting engaged, I am hopeful about the opportunities in our community but also that we will be in every room where decisions are made about us because nothing about us should be without us.

Betty Francisco, CEO, Boston Impact Initiative, and Co-Founder, Amplify Latinx and Latina Circle

I am Chinese and Puerto Rican- I grew up in New York City and in Puerto Rico. I identify as a “China-Rican,” but I didn’t come to embrace that heritage or even really understand what it meant to be both Latina and Asian until later in my life, and I always felt this tension. When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, everybody there called me “la Chinita” and I hated that because it highlighted by difference. I wanted to look like my family — my uncles are dark skinned, brown, curly hair, and I would go tan, lay out on the beach and curl my hair so I could like them. I wanted to fit some mold that I thought was Latino or reflected my Latinidad.

One day when I was about 10 years old my uncle took me to the Plaza de Añasco in Puerto Rico to show me statue of the drowning of Diego Salcedo in the plaza of Añasco. I grew up in Añasco, a tiny beach town in Puerto Rico that they say you’ll miss if you blink. Añasco is called the town where the gods came to die, named after a famous uprising where the Taino Indians in the 1500’s finally realized that their Spanish colonizers were mortals — not gods and that they could be killed. This statue symbolizes the Tainos defending themselves against the Spaniards, and it led to an uprising where most of the Taino Indians were slaughtered by the Spaniards. But it was this act of uprising, of resilience, of fighting back, of bravery, courage, that struck me so much. This idea of fighting and resisting for your independence and for your rights — that was what my uncle was trying to instill in me. He told me, “You’re the ultimate Puertorriquena, Taina, because you have the blood of your ancestors — Asian, Black, and Latina and you’re a fighter, you’re a warrior.”

After that conversation I began to embrace this idea of resistance and fighting back against injustice. I began to accept who I am rather than focusing on what I am not or what I look like. That’s my most resounding memory of what Puerto Rico means to me. It’s this beautiful multi-cultural place — I have memories of the beach, the food, and celebrating all the holidays with my grandparents. Memories of what a very simple life means. I really cherish all those things, the importance of family, of being together as a community celebrating the good and the bad. Those are my memories of growing up in this very small town, and I feel so aligned to that and my Latino culture because I didn’t learn my Asian side. And what I am really proud of today is that all those memories, all of those things that I did as a child created the person I am today as far as working really hard, standing up for who we are, always putting Latinidad at the front and center. I am proud of knowing two languages, I am proud of being able to codeswitch and go into different spaces and fight for other people. Those are the things that I learned from that story of the statue of the Taino Indians.

What gives me hope today are my children — my daughters are Honduran, Puerto Rican, Asian, Black — they’re everything, they represent so many cultures and races. And that is the future of our country, it is the future of our globe, and they are going to carry the torch for a multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational movement that’s going to change the world. I want them to do that in a way that centers Blackness because my husband is Afro-Latino and I have shown my girls they have to be proud of who they are. They tell me “We love being brown, we love being Black, we are excited to lead the future.” So that is what I‘m excited about — that I have girls that are so proud of who they are, who are so confident in who they are, and that race and ethnicity are not going to be a barrier for them, that is my hope.

Thank you to all of our staff and board members who offered to share these important reflections, and to everyone who took the time to read them.

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.