I was born in Puerto Rico; a US Commonwealth territory located in the Caribbean, and raised in Barrio Esperanza in Arecibo, a gorgeous place surrounded by beautiful mountains, rivers, and caves. I am a multiethnic descendant of Taino, the Arawak natives’ inhabitants of the Caribbean, Africans, and Spaniards. This gorgeous genetic pool, shaken with Salsa and mixed with spices, define my ethnicity as Hispanic with a proud identity as; Boricua (bôˈrēkwə) or Puerto Rican, a terminology derived from the name “Borikén” the Taino’s gave the Island, later renamed as “Porto Rico” (Puerto Rico), respectively.
Finding a place to fit in has been always a challenge for me because not everyone knows, understands, or accepts the uniqueness of an enriched ethnicity.
Moreover, the constant stereotypes and unconscious bias against our culture has led to an undervaluing of our personal mindsets, education, and ethical values. Nevertheless, life surprised me with a rich encounter when I met a Cahuilla-Cupeño Native American from the Morongo Reservation in Southern California, while attending a SACNAS conference.
I was the typical SACNAS first-timer in jeans and sneakers, carrying my poster all over the airport, trying not to abruptly knock anyone over with my plastic poster tube. While waiting for a cab, a Native American woman kindly asked, “Are you attending SACNAS?” I told her that I was, and she continued, “Would you like to share a taxicab with me?” I said yes. During our ride; the woman asked about my involvement in the organization and inquired about my vision as part of the society. She encouraged me to visit all career booths at the conference to increase my opportunities in Microbiology.
This woman was culturally and individually different than me, yet she was demonstrating a genuine interest in my career development. She showed sincere interest in supporting my advancement in STEM fields and made me feel a real sense of inclusiveness, which it is currently needed for underrepresented students in science.
That human kindness and genuine interest to assist, without stereotyping my Hispanic roots, made me feel welcome and included. At that moment, I noticed that, even though I was so far away from my family, I was feeling at home; a sense of belonging that surpasses all barriers of human possible understanding.
Upon our arrival to the hotel, I thanked her and asked her name. She responded, “I am Marigold Linton.” I replied: “Nice meeting you Marigold, I am Almaris Alonso.” That night, I was attending the opening ceremony at the dining hall, enjoying the banquet with students from different universities. An announcement was made presenting the blessing of the National Conference conducted by Native Americans. After the blessing, who took the stage, but none other than Dr. Marigold Linton, SACNAS Founding Member and renowned cognitive psychologist (as I came to learn later).
I was speechless, seeing her again, now on the stage as a presenter. Her speech that night was breathtaking. A reminder that, one of the greatest qualities of a leader is inspiring others, and she had done that part in a quick taxi ride. The last day of SACNAS was on a Saturday and all students gathered in the dining hall to participate in the award ceremony. During the award ceremony, a board of directors’ representatives approached me and delivered a small box with a golden SACNAS Lifetime Member pin inside. I knew that I was not a Lifetime Member (I had only paid the student membership), so I politely said, “Thank you, this does not belong to me, there must be a mistake.” Dr. Marigold Linton walked towards me, apparently noticing my confusion, and said: “This is a token of my appreciation, you will do great things for this society.” I could not believe she was there again, valuing and appreciating me without fully knowing me. From that moment I felt inspired, valued, and committed to dream big.
Part of being committed to thrive and dream big is understanding that our strengths and weaknesses, preferences and cultural backgrounds are part of our individuality and differentiate us as human beings.
Therefore, to be authentic, open and honest, and to create an impact on others, is extremely valuable to bring our whole self to STEM conferences. It is easier to bring one’s whole self to STEM when colleagues show appreciation and acceptance, while empowering others despite their differences. SACNAS has been a vehicle to ensure the celebration of each individual and our cultural differences; those that make us unique and proud. I firmly believe that we must pair cultural differences with appreciation.
Once cultural differences and individual preferences are valued and respected, the human brain is programmed to flow and execute inclusiveness.
Throughout my years at SACNAS, I served the society in several capacities; for example, as part of the Board of Directors, founder of multiple SACNAS chapters in Massachusetts and Puerto Rico, panelist at symposiums, and recruiter. Nevertheless, what I have valued the most from STEM individuals at SACNAS has been the exposure to all the different cultural and individual values. The day I met Dr. Linton is a day I will remember forever as one of the best multicultural and inclusive experiences of my life. It was the day this Boricua from Barrio Esperanza in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, crossed paths with a Cahuilla-Cupeño Native American from the Morongo Reservation in Southern California.
About the Author
Almaris Alonso-Claudio is a mom, a wife, a scientist, and a SACNAS Lifetime Member. She attended public schools in her hometown and finished a bachelor and master’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, a Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and completed her Postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Her work promoting equity and inclusion has been recognized with; The Woman Who Make a Difference Award (UMASS-Amherst); The SACNAS Presidential Award; and The Excellence in Equity Award, presented by the Boston Executive Board. Currently, she enjoys traveling the world with her family, mentoring students, and lives in Maryland.