Hispanic Heritage Month: An Exploration of Identity and Celebration of Culture

A Zoom call with 13 visible participantsThe University of Pittsburgh’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month kicked off in earnest with a virtual town hall on Wednesday titled “What Does it Mean to be Hispanic/Latina/e/o/x in the United States?”

The focus of the discussion centered around the diversity within the Hispanic/Latinx community in the U.S.—a population of more than 60 million people representing many different ethnicities, races and identities. The panelists discussed their experiences of often being “boxed in” by racial labels and stereotypes, and they also shared different aspects of what makes their culture so unique.

In opening remarks, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said that growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, allowed him to witness the “incredible diversity” of the Latinx community firsthand. 

“For me, this is a celebration worth having,” he said. “It’s about celebrating the vibrancy and richness of this incredibly broad umbrella of cultures, languages and ethnicities that represent this community.”

Moderated by Gina Garcia, associate professor in the School of Education, and Marialexia Zaragoza, a School of Education doctoral student, the panelists represented diverse backgrounds within the Hispanic and Latinx community:

  • Antonio Ponce-Meza, an undergraduate student in Pitt’s School of Computing and Information
  • Briana Rodriguez, a doctoral student in Pitt’s School of Education
  • Shenay Jeffrey, assistant director of PittServes in Student Affairs
  • Kenya Dworkin, associate professor, in Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Modern Languages, Hispanic Studies
  • Bianca DeJesus from Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Student Diversity & Inclusion
  • Cathy Bazán-Arias, senior engineer at consulting firm DiGioia Gray
  • Iván Cao-Berg, research software specialist at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center
  • Samyd S. Bustos, a postdoctoral research fellow at Pitt/UPMC

Watch the full panel discussion on the Pitt Diversity YouTube channel, or read highlights below.

Sharing artifacts

What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latina/e/o/x?

It’s important to acknowledge different identities within our communities. Here’s a quick breakdown of definitions:

  • Hispanic: Someone who descends from Spanish-speaking country.
  • Latina/o/e/x: Someone who is native or descends from Latin American country.
  • Afro-Latina/o: Someone who is native or descends from a Latin American country with African roots.
  • Significance of the “x”: the letter serves as a gender-neutral term.
  • What is “Latine?”: Just like Latinx, “Latine” serves as a gender-neutral term. The “e” helps with the flow of Spanish language.

Each member of the panel shared an artifact that represents their racial/ethnic identity.  Many of the panelists chose to share artifacts representing art, poetry, food and song.

Third-year student Antonio Ponce-Meza, who identifies as a first-generation Mexican-American, showed one of the many frozen tamales he brings to Pitt each semester from his mother’s kitchen in Texas. “I eat them when I feel down or want to reconnect,” he said. “It’s always nice to have cooking from home.”

Shenay Jeffrey, assistant director of PittServes in Student Affairs, shared a folk song from her native country of Guyana. “The song is nostalgic to me,” she said. “It brings warm and fuzzy memories of playing football and cricket … and reminds me of the food we share.”

Ivan Cao-Berg, a research software specialist at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, chose a poem by Juan Antonio Corretjer titled “Boricua en la Luna,” to symbolize his pride of being influenced by his Argentinian and Puerto Rican backgrounds.

The Hispanic Heritage Month committee is also asking all to submit their own artifacts throughout the month for an online showcase.

Grappling with identity

The panelists also answered a series of questions about how they grapple with their Latinx identities while living in the United States. Their remarks made clear that, depending on when and where members of the Latinx community are asked to identify themselves, the answer may be different.

In her opening remarks, Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement at the University Center for International Studies, spoke about there not being “a singular people of Latinos” in the U.S. and the importance of acknowledging the fluidity of their identities. “We are not a monolith … it means embracing the ‘elastic’ nature of our processes for identification.” It’s situationally specific, she said. She used herself as an example: Born to Cuban immigrants and raised in Miami, Florida, she self-identifies as “Cuban” when she’s in her hometown, because she’s “surrounded by people who understand what that label means.” But, when she’s in Pittsburgh, she self-identifies as “Latina.”

“Here (in Pittsburgh), I feel the need to belong to a collective community of people who have a shared experience, which is that of feeling on the margins of the majority of the population, or seen as a minority,” Torres said.

Jeffrey shared her experience of arriving to the United States at age 17 and finding it hard to navigate where she belongs—not knowing if she should check the proverbial box of being Latinx or Black. The latter, she said, often made assimilating much easier.

Garcia said the notion that people in the Latinx community feel that they have to assimilate comes from larger systems such as settler colonialism and white supremacy. “Today, we’re resisting,” said Garcia. “We’re pushing back. We no longer have to fit into these categories. We’re loud, we’re proud and we’re not going away.”

Bustos, a post-doctoral researcher in plastic surgery at the School of Medicine, was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, to a family of Lebanese immigrants. “To me, the main aspects of being Latinx are the feeling of unity but also acknowledging our big umbrella of cultures and identities,” he said. “Not only do we share a geographic region, but we have a similar foundation.”

About the event, Clyde Pickett, Pitt’s vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, said that coming together to hear these stories is critical—and so is recognizing the contributions of the Latinx community at Pitt and in the region.

“Sharing these stories and narratives are critical to how we experience and examine identity and build community,” said Pickett. “I’m excited about the work ahead, as we recognize and celebrate the cultures and histories of our Latinx communities.”

Submit Your Own Artifact

Throughout the month, all members of the regional community are invited to submit artifacts relevant to aspects of their Hispanic/Latina/o/e/x racial, ethnic and cultural identity for an online showcase. Artifacts can include poems, songs, dance, recipes, art, photographs, narratives, souvenirs and more.

Submitted artifacts will be displayed in an online gallery and on University social media channels throughout Hispanic Heritage Month. Learn more and submit your entry.