Today marks the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, a time when Americans celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Last week, I had the humbling experience of being honored by Al Dia News as a nonprofit leader with Hispanic heritage. After consulting with my colleagues, I agreed to accept the honor as a way of helping to promote the work of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.
“Talking about race, ethnicity, ancestry and identity was a regular dinner table conversation. Yet, it was never clear what box to check, so I typically selected “Other” or left it blank.”
Since I was a kid checking boxes on demographic questionnaires, I have struggled with how to identify myself. It’s never been totally straightforward. My paternal grandfather left a poor farming village in Spain as a teenager seeking economic opportunities in the U.S. He married an Italian immigrant in Philadelphia, ran a restaurant and raised a family, imparting the values of working hard and serving others. My maternal grandmother was half-Cuban and half-Irish. She grew up in North Philadelphia and went to the Spanish Chapel on Spring Garden Street that her father founded in 1912. My parents grew up in an era when it was believed that assimilation was key for immigrants to succeed in America. By the time my generation came along, Spanish was no longer spoken at home and the focus was on integration into a multi-cultural society. Most of my siblings considered ourselves American of Spanish, Italian, Irish and Cuban descent, yet three of my siblings were adopted and bi-racial. Talking about race, ethnicity, ancestry and identity was a regular dinner table conversation. Yet, it was never clear what box to check, so I typically selected “Other” or left it blank.
Was I denying my heritage by not checking the Hispanic box? After all, my grandfather worked so hard to make it to America and then worked so hard again to make it in America. How could I not be proud of his contributions and celebrate his heritage? He was an important figure in my life, taking me on my first trips abroad, supporting my education and fostering a sense of responsibility to serve others and the ambition that has lead me on my career path. I know all of my grandparents would be pleased to know that I work at the Welcoming Center. They would be pleased to know there is an organization that embraces people from all over the world, from all walks of life, regardless of education, work experience, color, or creed, and supports them in their journey to succeed in America.
“[Immigrant integration] implies a two-way process, whereby newcomers adapt to their new environment and those in the new environment attempt to facilitate the adaption immigrants are making.”
At the Welcoming Center we place a strong emphasis on respecting each person’s individual identity, the skills and experience they bring, and the customs and culture that they share. We use the word “integration” in our mission, as in “accelerating immigrant integration and economic advancement.” This implies a two-way process, whereby newcomers adapt to their new environment and those in the new environment attempt to facilitate the adaption immigrants are making. In this case, everyone involved evolves together. So, it was deeply dismaying last year when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service replaced the term “integration” with “assimilation” which connotes a one-way process, where society is static and under no obligation to welcome or facilitate the welcoming of immigrants.
As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to an end and our federal government implements policies aimed at discouraging newcomers from retaining their culture, values, language and identity, I am prouder than ever of my Hispanic heritage. I am also proud of my Italian, Irish and Cuban heritage and my sisters’ African-American heritage. It is who we are as a family. We are no longer facing obstacles to integrating, but we are constantly challenged with how to be more inclusive so that others know they are valued and respected as they strive to succeed. Just as Hispanic heritage represents the diversity of continents, nationalities, colors, creeds and cultures, so too does American heritage. Let’s celebrate by remembering those who came before us, welcoming all newcomers and building a more inclusive and equitable society today.