Empowering Students and Faculty to Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month
By Bryan Whitford, Spanish Teacher
The issue of my identity has not always been front and center in my mind. I was born in the United States to a father of English heritage and a mother from Puerto Rico. My last name does not exactly invoke Hispanic heritage. Growing up mostly in New Jersey, I feel I was like most kids trying to fit in as best I could whether it was keeping up with the latest fashion, listening to the current music, talking about the most popular TV shows, or debating who was the best local sports team. Although I was quite aware of my Puerto Rican background, I did not spend much time considering its significance. I heard the Spanish language every day at home however English was my native language and always my first choice. My siblings and I spent parts of summers in my mother’s hometown, my Abuelita and tía visited us often stateside, Puerto Rican food was a staple at the dinner table, and we celebrated many Puerto Rican customs and holidays in our household. And yet it never occurred to me what my Hispanic heritage meant to me.
During my college years, I intentionally began to explore my Hispanic identity. I enrolled in Spanish classes and I soon discovered a more intimate relationship with the language. For years I had wondered what it would be like to hold a meaningful conversation with my Abuelita in her language, and now perhaps that was in my grasp. I felt that I made quick connections after hearing the language so frequently at home. While my Spanish did improve and I was better able to communicate with my relatives in Puerto Rico, I still did not feel that this completely fulfilled my quest to understand my heritage. After graduation, I joined the Peace Corps and learned more about Latin American identity and history during my two years in Paraguay. This eye-opening experience inspired me to enroll in a Latin American Studies program and earn my Master’s Degree as I focused on history, development, and language throughout Latin America. I left the program more aware and informed, and yet I still did not fully connect with my heritage.
It wasn’t until I became an educator that I began to see my identity in a different light.
As a high school Spanish teacher, I found myself focusing not solely on the language but also on the identities of the different people who connect with the language. It was almost ironic because I was trying to help students understand the identities of others when I did not fully comprehend my own. That all changed in 2005 when I attended an affinity group meeting for educators who identified as Latinos/Hispanics. As I sat in the group and conversed with fellow educators I saw so many individuals who shared similar upbringings and experiences as me. I met attendees who had one parent from the United States and one from a Spanish-speaking country. Some had a non-Hispanic surname like me while others did not know the Spanish language at all. Regardless of their upbringing and their unique and individual stories, they were Hispanic and they were proud of it. That’s when I discovered what I was missing. Pride!
Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity for me to reflect on my pride in my family and my Puerto Rican heritage. I am proud of my mother’s home country and the heritage she has passed down to us. I now understand why she chose to move to the mainland United States, and I understand why she speaks so fondly of Puerto Rico when so many sights, sounds, and smells remind her of her country. I now understand why Roberto Clemente fueled her passion for baseball because of how he represented and inspired an entire nation. I am committed to understanding more about the past and how it informs the present. I now understand where our strong sense of family comes from and how I learned to pass that same sense down to my family.
In my classroom, I do not see Hispanic Heritage Month as a solitary moment to highlight high-profile names or noteworthy accomplishments. We can and we should make the year-long commitment to recognize notable Hispanic contributions throughout the curriculum while not confining ourselves to a one-month period.
Instead, I feel Hispanic Heritage Month represents an opportunity and an obligation to acknowledge the individual. It allows us the space to celebrate pride in Hispanic identity so that other Hispanic students and faculty can likewise feel empowered.
Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to uplift and give a voice to fellow Hispanic members in our schools who are still working to understand their heritage or perhaps are struggling to feel seen.
When we honor the Hispanics in our community we see the people for who they are and who have always stood among us. We begin to realize that the prominent Hispanic identity that enriches our school and local community rivals that at the state or national level.
The feeling of pride in one’s heritage is not always a given thus it is never too late to begin that journey of exploration. By embracing my Hispanic identity I hope I have helped fellow Hispanics in my school community embrace theirs. Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month is not about expressing pride for just this one month. The pride is ours for a lifetime.
Bryan Whitford is an Upper School Spanish teacher at the Bullis School in Potomac, MD.
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