Strength in diversity
October 8, 2010
They or their families have come from more than a dozen countries, yet they have sworn allegiance to only one. These are the people we mean when we refer to "Hispanic heritage" and the month set aside to honor their contributions to America.
Each year, since 1988, Americans celebrate "National Hispanic Heritage Month" from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. This year's theme is "Heritage, Diversity, Integrity and Honor: The Renewed Hope of America."
"I think it makes people more aware of the contributions that Hispanics make to the government workforce and to our society as a whole," said Christina Ryan, associate director for Small Business programs. "It helps identify role models for people of Hispanic descent and creates awareness for the contributions made by Hispanics."
Ryan, who has worked as a Department of the Army civilian for 28 years, is the daughter of a first-generation Mexican immigrant - her mother - and a second-generation Macedonian immigrant - her father.
Fabiola Martinez Lopez, a general engineer in the Advanced Technology Division, became the immigrant herself when her parents decided to move to Texas in 1991 when Lopez was 11.
"My father was the first one to become a naturalized citizen, and soon after, my siblings and I did as well," said Lopez, who has been a Department of the Army civilian for four years. "I didn't learn English until a year after arriving in the U.S. It was difficult at first, but we soon adapted. At home we tend to speak Spanglish, which is a mixture of both languages."
Spanglish is something with which many Hispanic Americans are familiar. Staff Sgt. Jerry De Leon said he and his parents often speak Spanglish, also.
"Gratefully, Puerto Rico has two official languages, Spanish and English," said De Leon, who has served in the Army for more than 13 years. "You are taught both from the first grade through college. It gave me an advantage over others who only spoke one language, especially when applying for jobs."
De Leon's parents are from Puerto Rico and Tennessee. He was born in Manhattan, N.Y., but grew up since the age of two in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans do not have to be naturalized because they are U.S. citizens, as granted by the Jones-Shaffroth Act in May 1917. However, De Leon said his father was the first of his family to move to the U.S. when he joined the Army in the 1950s.
Although Ryan did not learn any languages from her parents - both speak English primarily - they did share other aspects of their native cultures, including recipes from Mexico and Macedonia and music, dance and religion.
Lopez said her mother still encourages her to use herbal remedies that were passed down from her grandmother. In addition, she learned the traditional dance of her parents' native area.
"I introduced folkloric dance - a Latin American dance that emphasizes local folk culture - to my sixth grade class in 1991," Lopez said. However, she has not held on to as much as she would like.
"Unfortunately, there are many traditions that are lost in the midst of adapting to new ones and trying to belong to a different country," she said. "My grandparents and parents made sure this didn't happen to us, and for that, I am grateful because I have learned to embrace who I am and who we are as a family."
In addition to the physical aspects of a culture that are passed on to successive generations, many cultures also stress different values.
"I think most of us are raised with the same values: honor, respect, integrity, etc.," Lopez said. "However, there is one value that I do think my Hispanic Heritage has influenced and that is perseverance. I learned through my grandparents and parents that if you want something, then you have to work hard for it and even sweat tears if you have to. At one point, I remember my father having three jobs; I would wait up for him because he was the only one capable of helping me with my homework."
Unfortunately, many people assume the worst about people with "different" last names or "different" features.
"Because we were Mexican, people thought we lived off of welfare and food stamps," Lopez said. "I can proudly say that my parents never asked for government assistance. My mom would go door-to-door to ask for side jobs - ironing clothes, cooking or cleaning."
De Leon said he sometimes gets mistaken for an Italian, but that other assumptions are not as innocuous.
"People think that I come from a third world country, where we still have to use horses as our main mode of transportation," De Leon said. "Oh, and that we all carry a switchblade."
De Leon said the teaching and learning aspect is the most important part of Hispanic Heritage Month in dispelling assumptions.
"It gives others the chance to learn about my background in hopes that they will teach their children about people of other cultures and backgrounds," he said. "Knowledge is power."
Lopez sees benefits in Hispanic Heritage month and in the Army's diversity policy.
"The observance clarifies any misconceptions about Hispanic heritage, and it lets people know that, we, Hispanics, do have a positive impact in this country," she said. "The Army's diversity policy creates awareness and enables people to embrace each other and what makes us unique. In the end, that is what we all want - to be accepted for who we are."
De Leon agrees that diversity is a major strength of our Army.
"It shows that while we all come from different backgrounds, think differently, and have different attributes and characteristics, together we can make up the best Army in the world," he said.