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A Latina's Perspective: How My Cultural Strengths Add to a Culture of Belonging

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

A Latina's Perspective: How My Cultural Strengths Add to a Culture of Belonging

By Rafaela Reyes, MPOD, CDP ®

As a child, I had no idea I was different from any other second grader until mean-spirited boys began calling me names based on my identity. I didn’t know what slurs were or why those boys were taunting me. All I knew was that it made me feel different, less than, and like an outsider who did not belong. Psychologist Abraham Maslow recognized that belonging is a fundamental need in the hierarchy of human needs. But so often it is what is missing.

My experience in grade school, and other microaggressions I have come across in life, were the antithesis of what I experienced at home with my family. What is it that can be learned from the Hispanic culture about creating the conditions for belonging? Here are aspects of my Puerto Rican culture that have fostered belonging for me.

Family - Familia

Luckily, the depths of my Hispanic heritage would counteract many of the microaggressions I faced as my parents set up the conditions for us to experience a solid sense of family or “familia” that was sealed by a strong family identity. As a family, we often discuss the traits of “the Reyes” side as being driven, industrious and resourceful, that if you want to get a job done, “give it to a Reyes”.

In 1952, a month after being married, my parents came to the U.S. mainland with a vision of not only escaping the poverty of Puerto Rico, but to enable the creation of a better future. My father was firm on his purpose, to provide security for his blossoming family, taking the initiative to learn the trades as he worked on the side. He turned “lemons into lemonade - ‘limones en lemonada’ by investing workplace accident monies to buy land and there he built our family home.

In neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, it was commonplace for neighbors to take a “we” vs. a “me” approach to supporting and caring for each other because life was hard. When someone fell ill or if there was a death in a family, they would get together as a community to figure out how to help each other with farming or even taking in children who had been orphaned, as did my grandmother and my mother. So, it was not a stretch for them to continue the same here, caring and supporting newcomers or descendants of migrant farmworker families as they settled in. With this “we” attitude and their compassion, my parents became pillars of their Hispanic church, expanding their family tenfold.

Compassion - Compasión

On my mother’s side, “the Curbelos” were known for their deep sense of kindness, generosity, and compassion. My family often jokes saying “how do know when someone is Puerto Rican?” It’s by hearing phrases like “Hay bendito,” “Hay que pena,” or ¡Ave María!”. These are expressions of compassion for others as we deeply believe we are all on this journey of life together. My parents with their sense of “we” were eager to be of service to those in need, whether it was slipping in a few bills during a handshake for groceries, providing transportation or companionship for those who were widowed, or visiting those who were ill. Their compassion drove out moments of loneliness and desperation while providing a sense of hope and belonging.

Respect - Respeto

Growing up bi-culturally, I saw the difference in how my parents placed a high value on respecting others. Greeting others was always important, even if it was just in passing as it was important to validate the dignitary of everyone, especially the elders. It was common to greet others with a degree of formality and warmth, calling them “Señora” or “Señor”, saying “Bendición” meaning “God bless you” as we hug them.

Personable - Personalismo

While mainstream culture seems to be more time or task oriented, I experience the Hispanic culture as being more personable or “personalismo” oriented being open or even being eager to connect with others in an authentically friendly and respectful manner. My mother was suffering from strokes and was experiencing a disconnect with her doctor. We changed doctors and this time, I explained to the new caregivers the need for a culturally personalized approach to get the best patient experience. We took the time to explain who she was as a person so that they would see her value and uniqueness as a person instead of handling the visit as a transaction as they often are. I drew on the courage of my parents and the fear I had in losing my mother before her to time to speak up on her behalf.

The care team was responsive and outstanding in their care for my mom. They would greet her authentically as if they had been expecting her all day and they connected with her on an emotional level. They supported her in a way that she needed and it could be felt. I could tell she sensed deep respect and care for her wellbeing. During one visit, the doctor surprised her by giving her a prescription that read “Bailar,” meaning that she had to dance – doctor’s orders! What a culturally responsive way to get her to exercise more often. And yes, she began to dance!

There is much beauty and strength in the Hispanic culture especially in how it creates a strong sense of belonging by connecting with others in a way that is natural. With its personable approach, it facilitates connecting to others authentically, opening the pathway to truly seeing and accepting each other as we are, our strengths, opportunities, and accomplishments. Our culture tends to have a high degree of compassion facilitating supporting each other to be able to do, be, have even better. We are a driven people, with a vision and purpose to provide an even better future for our family and extended family members to come.

These aspects are only a snapshot of my Hispanic heritage, and as I reflect on them, I continue to see the opportunities they provide to bridge cultures and communities to create belonging our society so desperately seeks.

For more insight on the contributions of the Hispanic culture to belonging read:

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