National Hispanic Heritage Month is a celebration of the culture, history, and contributions of Hispanic Americans—those with roots in the Caribbean, Spain, Mexico, and Central and South America. It’s a time in the Hispanic community when we celebrate heroes, remember important cultural figures, educate others, and advocate on behalf of all members of the community.
My Hispanic heritage goes back to the farmlands and countryside of Puerto Rico. And when my grandparents chose to come to the continental United States in the 1960s and settle in Jersey City, NJ, it was for the same reasons so many others are drawn here: to find better opportunities for themselves and their children. For that, I’m proud to celebrate my heritage.
Some Puerto Rican heroes of mine include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who have each made huge impacts in their respective fields and have given Puerto Rican children (and adults like me!) the chance to see themselves represented in prominent roles.
Bringing my cultural pride to the workplace
In the past, my cultural pride was something that only really surfaced during family get-togethers or in the safe space of my home. Unfortunately, over the years, my academic and professional careers have taught me that not every space is a safe one.
And for BIPOC individuals navigating the politics, biases, and unspoken assumptions that are often a part of workplace culture, there can be unfair and untrue assumptions that are quietly (and at times, unconsciously) assigned to us the moment we submit our resume and walk through the door.
What not to ask a new co-worker
And then, there’s always “the question.” You may know the one I’m talking about. When chatting with a new colleague or professional contact, I’ll often hear “No, where are you really from?” Most of the time, this invasive and uncomfortable question comes as a follow-up to the standard get-to-know-you question, “Where are you from?” My answer is always “New Jersey” because, well, that’s where I’m from—plain and simple!
This question stings no matter where it’s being asked, but in the workplace, it gives me the sense that I’m already an outsider, regardless of my professional accomplishments, education, or personality.
Here’s my personal breakdown of “the question” and its effects:
“No, where are you really from?”
- “No” is the automatic rejection of my status as an American citizen.
- “Really” implies that perhaps I’m not answering the question truthfully.
- These two simple words create a mental roadblock that can make the person on the receiving end of the question feel they are being judged based solely on their inherited features. It creates the impression that no matter what, they will always have to work twice as hard to prove they were a good hire.
In my experience with this type of microaggression, I’ve been left to feel like I couldn’t be myself at work (as many other Hispanic people may have also felt at some point). It can cause you to feel that there should be some separation between your culture and the workplace, and it quickly becomes clear that one of the most important pieces of who you are may not be so welcome.
Here’s what you can ask instead
It’s actually okay to ask about a person’s cultural background; it’s an important part of who we are! But there are ways to get to know people without making people feel alienated or uncomfortable.
Here are some tips for getting to know a new colleague or professional contact, without the uncomfortable questions:
- Get to know them first. Finding out where a person is from should be a less significant part of the get-to-know-you process of meeting new people. Instead, try starting a conversation about their likes and interests, since that can reveal so much more about them and may open the door to a mutually fun conversation (and perhaps some casual, common ground). “Have you seen any good shows lately?” or “Are you reading any good books right now?” are great places to start.
- Let the personal stuff come up naturally. If everyone is comfortable enough and the conversation of cultural backgrounds comes up organically, there’s nothing wrong with that! This can be a great way to learn more about a person’s family in a comfortable, open, and friendly conversation. “My family is from Puerto Rico and my grandma makes amazing rice and beans for family dinners. What kind of dishes does your family like to share?”
- Be a little gentle. And if you do happen to just be genuinely curious about where a person is from, that’s okay too! Afterall, when I hear somebody is from Jersey, of course I have to say, “Oh! Me too! Where in Jersey?!” But it’s important to consider how you ask (and not to come off as probing or unkind). For example, “Do you live in town or do you commute?” is an easy way to strike up a conversation about hometowns. And if you do ask “Where are you from?” remember that any answer should be taken at face value. “No, where are you really from?” is never an acceptable way to try to find out someone’s cultural background.
Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month
Try out these lighthearted and fun ideas to celebrate your own Hispanic Heritage or explore what National Hispanic Heritage Month is all about.
- Share a traditional meal! In the days before COVID-19, a shared meal with traditional Hispanic foods was a fun (and delicious!) way to celebrate the tremendous variety that can be found in Hispanic cuisine and cooking. With a little tweaking, this can still be done virtually! Try your hand at a traditional dish and showcase it at a virtual potluck.
- A virtual watch party. Check out a film by a Hispanic filmmaker or starring Hispanic actors. With apps like Netflix Party and Scener, this is a great way to enjoy a movie and have a conversation about Hispanic representation in film and television. Some great examples of Hispanic representation on film include Roma, Coco, and Real Women Have Curves.
- Create a list of authors to share. If you’re a book lover, now is a great time to add some Hispanic literature to your reading lists. Authors like Junot Díaz, Gabriel García Márquez, and Sandra Cisneros are some of the most well-known, but there are so many more that offer their perspective on the world through a Hispanic lens.
Perhaps these simple activities will help spark some meaningful conversation among your friends, family members, or colleagues. Since we’re now at the tail end of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we’d love to hear how you or your organization lifted up the cultures and contributions of our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and heroes who identify as Hispanic. Join us on our Idealists of the World Facebook page to share your stories!