Ask Us About Our Heritage

Sometimes, when I tell people that I cannot handle spicy food, they look at me in disbelief.

“But you’re Cuban,” they say. “You eat spicy food like, all the time.”

It always irks me a little bit, even though I know they’re not trying to make assumptions or be insensitive. But since when does Hispanic blood automatically equal spicy food? Contrary to apparently popular belief, there’s not a hint of heat in the food that I grew up with. We use whole heads of garlic, dried bay leaves, and dainty saffron threads in our food. We eat sweet plantains and coconuts, Caribbean things.

Hispanic Heritage Month started on Sept. 15. Its student organizers, who I interviewed for an article last week, talked about the celebration’s dual purpose. First, it’s designed to give Hispanic students a reminder that not only does their culture matter, but also that they’re not alone. The second purpose is to help dispel some myths about Hispanic culture. It’s to show what makes a Honduran different from a Peruvian, but also what makes them all part of the same family. It’s to open up those cultures to everyone at Boston College and share them with people who don’t have any Hispanic blood in them.

It’s no secret that diversity is lacking at BC. The University started as an intellectual refuge for Irish-Catholic Bostonians, after all, and the student population has largely stayed that way since 1863. According to the latest numbers from BC, 32 percent of the current student population identifies as AHANA. That means that race still matters here, that we’re still getting used to it on campus.

While we pay attention to the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases, where minority people are targets of violence seemingly because of their race alone, there are also everyday cases of people feeling slighted in small ways because of their race that are just as damaging.

My sister, a senior in high school, was invited to fly to visit a school on its dime. Her so-called friends frantically searched online for how to get themselves invited, too, because heaven forbid someone get a bit of extra attention for all of her work. I mean, the kid has taken nine AP classes. These friends still couldn’t fathom what my sister had done to get singled out.

And then someone said to her: “I’m sorry you only got in because you’re Hispanic.”

Excuse me, what?

First of all, culture shouldn’t be an excuse. Affirmative action, while a good idea, would better serve the purpose of getting underprivileged people into college if it was based on economic status rather than just race. We should get where we are in life because of who we are and what we do with our time, not just because we happen to have the right background. It shouldn’t be the only reason a person gets something, but perhaps a bonus—a chance for an institution to invite a new, intelligent perspective in.

Second, attacking someone’s race is attacking who he or she is as a person. Making assumptions about it undermines their individuality and sends a message that a person looks and acts the same way as any other person of his or her race. Our culture shapes our identities, and apologizing for that identity can completely invalidate it.

Most importantly, no one should ever be made to feel ashamed because of his or her race. A Hispanic person is likely raised very differently from an Asian person, who is also probably raised differently from white person, and as a result they all have different ways of communicating and perceiving the world. If everyone thought the same way, nothing would ever progress. Making assumptions and apologies effectively says, “I already know you. I don’t have to listen.”

But you do. You should.

Telling me that I eat spicy food is innocuous enough, and I use the comment as an opportunity to explain a little something about my heritage. I wonder, though, what other assumption are being made about minority people. What other questions are being turned into facts before those facts are even verified? What would a person learn by asking a question, and what myths could be changed by giving a gracious answer?

Featured Image by Eugene Kim via Flickr

September 28, 2014