October 8, 20210 mins read
Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the contributions of Hispanic Americans in the United States from September 15 – October 15. In this post, Luisamaria Hernandez, People Experience Coordinator at Snyk, shares what Hispanic Heritage Month means to her, why language matters, and how her Hispanic heritage has influenced her as an operatic performer.
”Who do you want to be when you grow up?”
I remember being asked this question as a kid so many times. During Hispanic Heritage Month, I can’t help but think about my answer. After all, the “who” for me isn’t just one person. For me, I think about the generations of people who came before me and paved the way so that I could write to you today. The “who” is every member of my family, good hardworking people who have taught me more than my words could ever capture.
They don’t hold fancy titles or run big companies. They are retail workers and medical administrators, bank personnel, and stay-at-home moms. Their livelihood is a combination of blood, sweat, tears, and so much sazon that the sancocho is already simmering in the pot.
There are so many Hispanic Americans that have influenced not just me, but a lot of what you see around you. From leaders in the tech field like Ernie Cordova, Isaura Gaeta, and Dario Gil. To activists like Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and Dr. Carlos Russell. Let’s not forget entertainers, artists, and athletes like Jennifer Lopez, Carolina Herrera, and David Ortiz. All of these larger-than-life figures have used their platforms and notoriety to give people like me a springboard for growth and the possibility of success.
This month-long U.S. holiday was started as a week-long celebration by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Twenty years later, it was extended to a month-long celebration lasting from September 15 – October 15 by President Ronald Reagan. For me, 31 days to celebrate what the millions of Hispanic Americans have freely given this country is simply not enough time.
Words have power, and Hispanics are a testament to this.
When I was growing up, my family members would speak to me in Spanish and I would respond in English. I still don’t know what was going through my mind back then, but I remember feeling like somehow speaking Spanish made me different, and not in a good way. When I was six years old my mom decided she’d had enough with my personal vendetta against the language that lived in my name, reflected off my skin, and bounced off my curls. So naturally, we moved.
We moved to the Dominican Republic, a place where speaking Spanish was my only choice. Needless to say after a few months I gave into learning Spanish and quickly realized that "different" could feel very good.
After a few years, we moved back to the U.S. and right away I started to see how being Hispanic American was as complex as rolling my r’s. People tended to recognize the contributions that people of Hispanic descent had in the U.S. as things like music, baseball skills, and food that took your taste buds on a journey. For me however, being Hispanic was so much more than these things. I saw the contribution that people like my mom had made to this country every day. Her work ethic, perspective, and passion for helping others were astounding and it became very clear to me that this wasn’t just unique to her, it was innate to being Hispanic.
As I grew up I learned that the Spanish language could convey things in a way that was more complex and nuanced than my limited vocabulary was capable of. When I asked my mother, "How are you doing today?" she would not simply answer, "I am fine." My mother would twist her tongue and massage her breath into a medley of sounds that took me and anyone around her on a journey. By listening to the people around me speak Spanish and being willing to enter the conversation I also realized that there was a whole world out there that went far beyond the words you could find in a dictionary. The stories I heard were filled with a history that was rich in struggle, but resilient, and capable of overcoming even the darkest of things. Coming to a different country meant learning a new way of life, and for many Hispanics in America, preserving the history and culture of the places their families came from became a lifeline. This is what comes to mind when I think of Hispanic Heritage Month.
In my life, I have taken inspiration from many Hispanic Americans as a way to inform what I do, especially as an operatic performer. I now see the irony in my specialization in Latin American, Caribbean, and Spanish repertoire because for many years the Spanish language was like poison ivy to me. I can’t say that there is much that can compare to hearing and performing music that feels like it was written for you. I imagine that this is what my mother must have felt the first few times I responded to her in Spanish. I imagine the pride she must have felt as she heard the sounds with which she made me come to life in my tiny voice.
After many years of proudly wearing my Hispanic heritage as a badge of honor, I did not have to think twice when deciding what type of music I wanted to put at the forefront of my storytelling and singing career. Music in Spanish has become my staple and knowing that 13% of the U.S. population will hear me sing something that reminds them of the home their ancestors knew is more rewarding than my six-year-old self could have ever imagined.
I can only speak to my experience as I try to highlight the effect that being Hispanic and looking up to other members of this community has had on my life. While music and storytelling are the ways in which I have chosen to both preserve and honor the contributions of those who came before me, I am also aware that Hispanic Americans have left an indelible mark on the fabric of this country. I also see a lot of room for growth and understanding in the U.S. After all, language matters. My heritage and culture matter.
When I circle back to thinking about who I’d like to be when I grow up, I stand by my answer. I want to be like my mom, my brother, my cousins, my aunts, my grandma, my madrina, and my nieces and nephew. They are the unsung heroes of the Hispanic American population and they are what give my song meaning. If my loved ones are a testament to what being Hispanic can mean for those around them then I know that my spitfire tongue and salsa-prone steps have the potential to pave the way even if just in song and word.
If you'd like to give back to the Hispanic community, check out these organizations that are paving the way for Hispanics in the United States: