This September 15th marks the start of Latinx Heritage Month. It has made me reflect a lot on my journey exploring culture—the importance of it, and the ways I have had to defend it. When I came to Duke, I was so lost. It felt like nobody would ever understand the hardships I had to overcome to even get here. My freshman year, I was hardly involved with Mi Gente or any cultural organization for that matter. Then, I decided to take a chance and join the Political Committee in Mi Gente; for the first time, I did not feel alone. Joining gave me the confidence to speak Spanish, get connected with my roots, and express myself through culture. I was able to meet amazing Latinx leaders on campus who cared about the issues our community was facing. Mi Gente allowed me to find connections in a year where COVID made that especially hard. Cultural organizations, in general, are great touch points for marginalized students. However, more needs to be done for students outside their own labor. There are obstacles for Latinx students everywhere I look. Everyday, whether it be through extracurriculars or an academic environment, I saw my mentors, who are also Latinx students, be forced to defend their right to be here. My time at Duke has been very emblematic of this. Everyday, I fight for the right of students of color to exist on campus. I realized that expressing my culture was worthwhile, but I had to fight for my right to do that. The closer I came to traditional or dominant systems at Duke, the more issues I had with honoring my culture. Organizations like Mi Gente, where I was able to freely be myself and become grounded, sometimes feel completely antithetical to the systems in place at this university. Student activists must often sacrifice their mental health and overall college experience, spending time in hostile environments, for the sake of the students who come after them. That was true for my mentors and myself, and will be true for future students like us.
I was taught to keep my heritage and family in the decisions I make on campus, and that helped me gain the passion to navigate Duke and make these sacrifices. Throughout my life, I have seen examples of cultural perseverance in the face of adversity. When my father came to America, he had nothing. He walked hundreds of miles across the desert to support his family. He met my mother, who is also of Mexican descent and they shared their culture with me. The investment from my parents to pass down these traditions was incredibly powerful and meaningful for me. My fondest memories come from the heritage my parents have passed down to me. Every Christmas we make tamales, every day of the dead we eat Pan de Muerto, and every January we celebrate El Dia de Los Reyes. Some of the traditions we have are timeless, but some come from my father’s time in Mexico City. My mother has also given me the cultural blend of Mexico, but the uniqueness of Los Angeles, showing me raspadas, street vendors, and other Chicano traditions I hold dearly. At a young age, I would sell sandia from the Farmer’s Market with my dad. I was able to see so many Chicanos hustling to make a better life for themselves and their families. My parents gave me the greatest memories I could ask for of my childhood. As a low income college student, I may not have grown up with much, but my heritage is priceless. I would be nothing without these experiences. Just like my father, I have now moved onto another part of my life, and hope to follow his example, passing on the traditions of my heritage to those I care about.
Because of this, organizing and creating a space for students like myself has become one of my greatest priorities. September 15th also marked the start of Mi Gente’s annual Latinx Heritage Month Kickoff. As President of Mi Gente, Duke’s largest Latinx association, I looked around Bryan Center Plaza and saw myself in the students I serve. There was a variety of flags, decorations and music to celebrate Latinx students on campus. Though we all have different experiences, unique perspectives and individual struggles, there are aspects of our culture that unite us all. There was a great sense of pride among students, not to any one state or nation, but to our collective heritage. Watching new members become more comfortable with their identity in a public setting brought me great joy. Many Latinx organizations have taken steps to make sure that students and allies are welcome regardless of their background, but things are difficult. This is because Latinidad is so diverse, it is so fluid.
A few hundred miles can make the difference between politics, religion, and culture. Our communities have suffered from colonialism, and continue to suffer from its influence. A few hundred years ago, the indigenous of the Americas were invaded and had their own borders told to them by their colonizers. And now, our identity and our stories are also labeled, bordered, and taken from us. Our whole lives, the dominating culture has told us what or what does not constitute Latin American, Latinx, Hispanic, Latino, Latina, and Latine. At Duke, the dominating culture are systems like Greek Life, DSG, and administration, but this extends to systems in the real world as well. I have felt boxed into the Latinx identity by these systems, when the beauty of our heritage is its diversity, breadth, and myriad of experience. However, the constant of Latindad is the perseverance we have to express that heritage. Just like my mother and father, the workers in the farmers market, the youth in the barrios, my experience here at a PWI, and the students I serve – we are constant. La Latinidad will never go away. Our culture, our heritage, and our stories are priceless and ever present. No matter the space or conversations, Latinx students, faculty, and staff will continue paving paths and contributing to conversations surrounding our right and freedom to be here unapologetically. We persist because of the strength of our people, our commitment to continue these conversations, and our desire to pass down heritage. Community and solidarity have enabled and allowed Latinidad to last as long as it has.
This Latinx Heritage Month, honor your ancestors and their independence from rule. Take back your voice from the systems that colonize you like the Chicanx in the barrios did about the word Chicano. Do not let them label you, shape your narrative, or draw their borders. No matter the space you enter or the systems you are a part of, you matter. At an institution like Duke, finding people like you can be hard but you are making a generational path for others by doing so. Your future descendants are thanking you right now, so seize your opportunities and make them proud. I am so blessed and so grateful to be a part of a new generation of Latinx leaders, educating myself and making it easier for those that come after me. It gets hard, but we are doing this out of necessity. My voice has been colonized many times by the systems that oppress me. We are in an era of neo-encomienda; your narrative and voice will be shaped for you if you don’t take control of it yourself. My time in Mi Gente has shown me the power of cultura, the power of narrative, the power of voice and the power of community.
I challenge you to use your voice, remember you belong, connect with others and be unapologetically yourself. However, being here as a Latinx student is a challenge in itself. With this in mind, remember to take care of yourself. We all deserve peace, love, and happiness. This heritage month, I hope you continue finding ways to explore your happiness systems you are in. You deserve it.
President of Mi Gente
Anthony Salgado is a Trinity junior. His column normally runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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