CASA Conversations

Reflections This Hispanic Heritage Month

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By Keisha Maldonado, Bilingual Case Supervisor

The Hispanic/Latino population is the fastest growing minority group in the United States. If you have ever taken a stroll down Passaic’s Main Street, you’ve probably been enticed by the smell of pollo al horno wafting from the nearby El Cheveres (a Peruvian restaurant renowned for its roasted chicken), or have noticed advertisements and store signs written in español. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can spot a donna or caballero selling Italian ice from a trolley outside of Easy Pickins.  Over a whopping 30 percent of Passaic County residents identify as Hispanic or of Latino/a origin. For this reason, it is important for us, as Court Appointed Special Advocates, to recognize this significant part of the community that we serve.

During Court Appointed Special Advocate training we cover cultural competency, or the ability to effectively interact with people from all cultures. Culture is the shared values, beliefs, and customs of a community. Culture includes outwardly expressions such as food, music, and language. The inwardly expressions or “below the surface” characteristics include our beliefs regarding life, love, marriage, and death; they shape how we think about the world and how we interact with one another.

I am a firm believer that cultural competency cannot be taught in a 3-hour session, nor in a year-long course for that matter. Becoming culturally competent is a life-long, on-going process. During CASA training, we encourage our aspiring CASAs to show awareness and practice mindfulness when interacting with people from different cultures, and to take time to learn from and about different communities. With Hispanic Heritage Month coming to a close, I want to take this opportunity to share a bit about my personal culture in the hope it will help illustrate some important concepts about identity and family.

I am an Ecuadorian American woman and I identify as both Hispanic and Latina, at a bare minimum. I am also Quiteña, serrana, and of Incan and Spanish descent. The labels I use to describe my background carry significance. Each label makes up a part of my culture – it explains the way I interact with my family members, the way I see myself in the community, and the traditions and superstitions ingrained in me. Calling myself Hispanic or Latina can give you a general idea of my culture, but it is also important to acknowledge the micro-communities that I am a part of. Each micro-community within the Hispanic/LatinX community has its own history and culture. There are nuances and differences within the communities that are important to consider.

During conversations regarding race and ethnicity, you will often hear the terms Hispanic and Latino/a tossed around. These two terms are not interchangeable. Hispanic refers to people who originate from countries that speak primarily Spanish. Latino/a or LatinX refers to people who originate from Latin America. These two terms were created as “umbrella terms” to generalize a large group of people by using two shared characteristics; the Spanish language or country of origin. But by using these terms we also run the risk of alienating communities. Brazilians and Haitians, for example, are not considered Hispanic, but they could identify as Latino. Spaniards, on the other hand, could identify as Hispanic, but are not a part of the LatinX community.  This is where we can see the limitations that come with using the terms Hispanic or LatinX to pigeonhole over 60 million United States residents.

A beneficial method to learn more about our 60 million neighbors is to look at their shared “below the surface” characteristics. One such characteristic is the concept of collectivism. Collectivism is the belief that the needs of the group or family outweigh the needs or desires of the individual.  This belief can manifest itself in adult children choosing to live with their parents, or when grandparents, aunts/uncles, and cousins cohabitate. La familia is the main support system; financially and emotionally. Private or sensitive matters are handled within la familia and seeking help from social services or mental health services can be seen as taboo.  We can use this information to better understand why the families we work with sometimes act the way they do.

That said, remember not to generalize the Hispanic/LatinX population. Use what you learn anecdotally about the Hispanic or Latino/a population as a guide or backbone when interacting with its members, but also take the time to learn about an individual’s unique culture.

When interacting with someone who identifies as Hispanic/LatinX, be willing to continuously learn, listen, and acknowledge there are many ways of living and no one way is the “correct” way. I encourage you to look around your communities and step outside your comfort zone. If you see a restaurant serving Guatemalan or Peruvian food, why not give it a try?  There are many small “Mom and Pop” stores (known as tiendas) selling wares from countries across Central and South America.  Stop in and purchase a drink or snack. Ask the shopkeeper for his/her recommendation if you are unsure about what to buy! You can learn a lot by tasting the food, listening to the music, meeting the people, shopping in the small stores, and generally exposing yourself to a different culture. We are lucky to live in such a wonderfully diverse part of the country where we can learn so much from our neighbors!