Mar 14, 2014 · 14 Replies

Embracing Diversity

By Crystal Mendoza @crystalmendoza

I never considered myself diverse. I know this may sound contradictory considering I’m writing for the Education in Diversity Blog, but let me explain. I grew up in El Paso, TX, one of the many cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. The border encompasses Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California on the U.S. side and Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California Norte on the Mexican side. Both of my parents were born in Chihuahua, Mexico and moved to the United Sates when they were kids. Years later, they met and had me here in the U.S. thus making me first-generation American. Growing up on the border offers an interesting take on issues of immigration, race, and the blending of cultures. The issues many Americans read and hear about on the news are issues you often experience first hand living on the border.

So why didn’t I consider myself diverse? El Paso has this constant influx of people coming from Mexico to work, visit family, and go to school. It’s difficult to consider yourself diverse when the majority of your classmates speak the same primary language you do, are of similar ethnicity, and abide by the same traditional values. This isn’t exclusive to Hispanics, and other groups many have had similar experiences. Applying for scholarships specific for minorities in high school for college didn’t make sense to me. I was surrounded by hundreds of Hispanics, how did that make my chances any better? Looking back on it, I can see that this was rather narrow minded in terms of only thinking about El Paso and Texas instead of the country as a whole.

Having been raised partially by my grandparents who didn’t speak English, I primarily spoke Spanish throughout my childhood to communicate with them. In elementary school, I was placed in bilingual classes and the balance of both languages seemed manageable. It wasn’t until I moved to Las Vegas, NV, when I first realized that the majority of people didn’t look like me as they did back home. During our two-year residence in Las Vegas, the very little Spanish we spoke at home came to a screeching halt. My brother, a mere toddler at the time, suddenly exhibited signs of speech regression when he had been speaking fine just months before. This eventually led to an autism diagnosis, but the physician at the time suggested to only speak English at home in order to see if his speech would return. Our Spanish at home disappeared, and I felt like a fake Mexican-American when I couldn’t even carry on a conversation with my family members back home.

Once we moved back to Texas, I felt worse. I struggled to communicate and members of my family often joked that living in Las Vegas had turned me into a gringa. So where did that leave me? I spoke English well, and had an accent when I tried to speak Spanish. The decision I made next is one I’ve come to regret: I stopped speaking it and only spoke it when I had to, which was speaking to my grandparents and other family members who didn’t speak English. Often times, when I didn’t want to speak it, I would turn to my parents and ask them to translate for me or speak Spanish haphazardly only to have them correct it. By high school, I took Spanish classes, and realized just how detrimental my refusal to speak my first language was. My grammar was no longer fit to write even a few sentences and my accent was nightmare. My grandparents urged me to keep practicing, reading, and speaking Spanish in order to be able to continue this form of communication we had formed between us. Gradually, and with the help of my undergraduate research mentor, my Spanish got better. Granted, my primary language is still English, but the option of communicating in another language has finally expanded to include my first language that was forgotten at one point.

Once I moved to Rochester, I realized I couldn’t speak Spanish freely anymore like I could back home, and the little ways I would greet others back home weren’t typical of individuals in the area, or the Midwest for that matter. Without a doubt, I went through a culture shock. Now, I’m often stopped and asked if I’m Latina/Hispanic/Mexican, which was never a question back home because the majority of people were. These instances, however, have only made me more proud to be Hispanic and to be of such a different culture. Now that I live in Rochester, I’ve found myself more willing to speak Spanish and find people that speak it. I’ve learned from my mistakes and don’t plan on rejecting my first language again. Sure, some people may poke fun at the fact that I pronounce tortilla funny or that I roll my “r’s”, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. For so many years, I thought that if I spoke English, and refused to speak Spanish, that I would instantly become fully and purely American, but that’s neither who I am nor where I come from.  I’m Mexican-American and I’m proud.

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mrsbrock and l morris like this

Posted by @moorishpriest, Mar 15, 2014

One of the most interesting introduction to diversity is going to a University, many cultures and ethnic groups create a chance to learn a lot about the humanity on earth. Many people only get and introduction to the African American experience from media.However college allows first hand introduction to the masses of society in which educates in diversity. Which is a great strength in our society.


Posted by @liannetotty, Mar 17, 2014

I can relate to your post, although I haven't experienced exactly the same things that you did, I too know what it is like to go through changes with your cultural identity. When I was 16, I moved from the Guyana to the US, my accent was so strong that I tried to erase it completely. Didn't work, I still speak with a slight accent that I am proud of. When I go home to Guyana, I am a "yankee" people can tell by hearing me speak, I tried so hard to fit into the US classroom, that I lost a part of what made me unique. Now I speak and am proud when I hear the lilt in my voice.


Posted by @valerieh, Mar 22, 2014

I really enjoyed reading about your experience. I grew up in San Antonio, TX as a second generation American. I pretty much had the opposite experience. My mother, who speaks Spanish fluently, did not speak Spanish with us in the home. This left me and my brother knowing very little even though my grandmother did not speak much if any English. Because my grandmother had difficulties with English she spoke to us in Spanish but we would answer her in English. I often look back and wish I would have been more diligent about learning Spanish.


Posted by @what1111, Apr 16, 2014

I enjoyed your post. You are so right when you are raised around your culture and that is all you know how can you be diverse. My mother did not send me to the schools that was in my school zone. My mother sent me out of my school zone area. That when I learned about other cultures.


Posted by @leonsams, Apr 16, 2014

I concur with your statement and or argument with regards to this topic; I humbly think that in my opinion, being raised in a certain environment is as if you’re confined to that culture in contrast. I myself have some similarities for example I grew-up in Wilmington Delaware in the inner city as an African American. Before desegregation I attended a predominately all black school with exception of a few Spanish classmates. Which I well embraced because we all are people or as my mother would often say, we all are like flowers on God’s green earth you see that’s what makes diversity so unique and beautiful in nature. Now let’s fast forward when I joined the navy you would not believe nor could even imaging all the different races of people from all walks of life!!! It was wonderful to see different people learning new things, places and ideas. And to top it all making port visits to exotic countries. That’s what makes our world that we call home so precious, beautiful, and wonderful.


Posted by @mrsbrock, May 6, 2014

I found your post to be very interesting. It's great that you were able to realize how diverse you are and become a little more accepting of it.


Posted by @mrsbrock, May 6, 2014

I think that your story is very interesting. The most interesting part is that as a result of experiencing diverse cultures you were able to see just how exceptional yours is and become more accepting of it.


Posted by @romell2014, Jun 8, 2014

Crystal, interesting post. Being who we are is just that. However, my thoughts are that interacting with others is what makes us diverse. And you seem to have had to interact with a variety of individuals. At least you have interacted with more people of differences than yourself than me. I have never been outside the country (US) nor have I traveled much within the U.S. Growing up I interact more with individuals of my own culture and less with other cultures. I consider myself somewhat guarded which does not surprise me. I grew up in an urban setting; attended schools that were predominately African American; and currently still live in an urban setting that is predominately of my own race. I guess you might say I am not diverse. What are your thoughts.


Posted by @msl_rodriguez, Jun 10, 2014

Deborah - The first step in fixing anything is awareness. Now that you realize that your environment consist of individuals like you, it gives you an opportunity to grow in your diversity. Take the time to visit new places by traveling 1-3 hours away from your home, speak to others that are not like you and try to find out about them and their culture, create a bucket list of places you would like to go and research about that place, people, and culture.

As educators, I think it's important that we are and understand diversity to ensure that we prepare our learners for a global society.


Posted by @dinky3465, Jun 12, 2014

Deborah, I think you have touched on a reality that is huge in the US, we talk about diversity, we say we want to embrace it and yet we do not do a lot to build the opportunity for people to explore and dive into diverse communities. In part I believe some of it is personal safety, but then there is forced segregation as well, which we try to pretend doesn't exist anymore when in fact it does. I suspect however that there was more diversity in your community that you expect or think about, LBGT communities, deaf communities all integrated within the larger community, we limit our ideas about what constitutes diversity. Thanks for your personal reflection and post!


Posted by @msl_rodriguez, Jun 10, 2014

I enjoyed hearing about your experience and in many ways can relate to you journey of finding yourself. As children we aim to belong and blend into the environment we are in and thus we try to be just like everyone else even if it means rejecting our culture. I had a very hard time during my middle and high school years as my mom kept our culture and I fought to lose it. As I grew older and begun hanging with other young individuals who share the same origin as I did, it helped me find who I was. Now as and adult I embrace my culture, I realize my uniqueness and I love being Trinidad.

I urge all parents to maintain a love for culture even when the kids fight it.


Posted by @dinky3465, Jun 12, 2014

Maria, thanks for sharing a story of victory, finding your way and learning to love who you are. I agree with you that belonging and blending in seems to override so much of our actions and thoughts, that we forget the richness of our own lives.


Posted by @dinky3465, Jun 12, 2014

Crystal Mendoza; Thank you for sharing your insight regarding diversity. I am sad too that you gave up your first language because you felt like you had to. What can we do to help others find that needed balance so they can hang onto their cultural roots? There is so much pressure to conform, I grew up overseas and was embarrassed because I didn't speak multiple language, I could engage a little and learned enough to get by but the expectation was that you would be multilingual. Clearly not the case in the US.


Posted by @owend, Jun 12, 2014

Hi Crystal,
I find your story more common than not. In fact, many would probably say that you assimilated and would have a different take on being willing to speak Spanish. You are to be commended for being proud to be who you are. I come from a culture where we were taught to be more like the majority culture so that we would "fit in". Depending on your cultural reference and your socioeconomic background, this makes a great deal of sense. Many of us are programmed to try and achieve the "American Dream". We find ourselves believing that to accomplish these material things, we have to be more like the majority culture to "fit in".

In my opinion, it is beneficial to be able to speak more than one language in this country. I have been learning Spanish for many years. In fact, I am dating a Hispanic lady and one of the agreements that we have is that I will correct her English, and she will help me in perfecting my Spanish once I have a good grasp of the language. Speaking the language is just one part of embracing diversity. What i have learned over the years is that it comes down to tolerance and attitude, but most of all respecting difference.
Thank you for your post.

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