President Obama’s historic path to the White House would not have been possible without the millions of Latinx and Hispanic voters, campaign volunteers, and administration staff who played a critical role.
Here at the Obama Foundation, members of the Latinx community not only hold crucial positions across our organization, they bring a unique perspective that shapes our work every day. So to mark Latinx Heritage Month, also known as Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked several Foundation staff members to share personal stories of family, tradition, and resilience that speak to the diversity of the Latinx diaspora.
We hope you’ll take a few minutes to read them, and reflect on the ways Latinx Americans have made our union a little more perfect throughout our history.
Cristina Mendoza, Operations Manager:
I am a proud Xicana with roots in Jalisco and Michoacán. Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa I didn’t have the opportunity to connect with many Latinxs outside of my direct family and oftentimes shied away from my identity, feeling embarrassed that my dad spoke to me in Spanish or that my grandparents offered my friends menudo instead of meatloaf at dinner. This would all change when I turned twenty and moved to Pilsen, a small predominantly Mexican neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago—the place my paternal family immigrated to in the early 70s and still reside in.
For two decades Chicago was always my home away from home. It was the place where I first discovered paletas and could practice my Spanish, where eating tortillas with breakfast and belting songs from Rebelde was the norm. But it was the act of storytelling that truly made this place home. I would learn about my grandmother's Purepecha roots, about the socks my dad would sell at Maxwell Street Market, and about the dozens of Mexican immigrants (both strangers and friends) who would stay in our family home until they could get on their feet. These stories would act as my north star, directing me to always prioritize my community and the people in it. My father always told me that I would be the one to tell our family stories and that’s what I hope to do.
In 2020 I decided to finally go back to school and complete my Bachelor's Degree, this time focusing on Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago. For the first time in my life I was able to not only trace my family's immigration story but learn the history of Mexican Americans, narratives that are all too often left out of our history books. I celebrate my heritage through learning, through storytelling and through admiration for all those who came before us. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating Latinx stories this month.
Beverly Brooks, Deputy Director, MBK Alliance:
My mother’s attempt to explain my mixed identity was simple. She said, “Your dad is the coffee and I’m the milk, which makes you café con leche”. (Translation: coffee with milk). As a child, it was all I needed to hear because café con leche was my favorite.
My father, a black Honduran reverend in the Episcopal Church, and my mother, a chemist from the central valley of Mexico, settled in La Ceiba, Honduras where I was born and raised. Through my American school, good cable, and annual visits from my New York cousins, I was constantly exposed to American culture. However, my parents insisted on keeping our rich background alive through travel, music, story-telling, food, and conversations that explored the American dominance in my small town, where the banana company had been the main employer since the late 1800’s.
Attending college in Kentucky was when I learned to recite responses to a set of FAQs: “Why don’t you have an accent?” “Where are you really from?” “How come you have an English name?” Living in the U.S. often requires that I check a box for those seeking to label me, but I’ve learned that being Afro-Latinx is my superpower: it gives me the ability to honor people’s individuality and respectfully seek ways to relate to them.
Today, I celebrate my Afro-Latinidad by making all my favorite Honduran and Mexican dishes for my family. I’m always proud to see my sons devour a plate of chilaquiles, arroz con pollo, or baleadas.
Mario Amaya-Velazquez, Development Strategy & Operations Associate:
I was born in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, Mexico and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. From an early age, I grew up cultivating the curiosity to bridge worlds: at first, the Spanish-speaking world I inhabited at home with the English-speaking one outside of it. Family home videos from when I was about five years old betray the fact that I was a curious kid from the start, asking questions left and right, likely to the annoyance of my family members! As I grew up, that innate curiosity, paired with a reverence for education that my parents instilled in me early on, drove my academic studies, exploration into my family history, and a variety of hobbies that captured my imagination—photography, reading, science, and so on.
While education was incredibly formative, so was the strong sense of community that my parents and extended family exhibited as recent immigrants to this country. Our household was multi-generational and our definition of “family” was expansive and welcoming, particularly to other recent immigrants in the U.S. getting their start in this country. While attending university locally in Michigan, and being the first in my family to do so, I paired a passion for language learning with my studies as an International Relations major to study abroad in Italy, Jordan, and Kenya. These ventures abroad then galvanized me to join the Peace Corps in Rwanda following graduation, seeking to pay it forward.
Similar to what I’d seen growing up, I noticed that the focus and importance of family and community was cornerstone in each of these countries and cultures as well. Woven between those experiences abroad, I’ve been fortunate to make semi-regular trips back home to Oaxaca to visit family on both my mom and my dad’s sides of the family over the last decade and half. Today, I like to honor my heritage by listening to the Mexican boleros from the 50s and 60s that my grandparents listened to, learning to cook family meals, and enjoying mezcal neat.
Gaby Peña Fraga, Vice President, Product and Technology:
I was born in Lima, Perú, in the mid-1980s amidst the Peruvian civil war—a time when the sound of car bombs exploding by our apartment, or the routine of doing my kindergarten homework in candlelight, were oddly customary.
While my primary homebase as a little girl was Lima, I actually spent months at a time traveling all across Latin America (Buenos Aires, Asunción, Managua, Caracas, Tegucigalpa, Montevideo, Panama City, etc., etc.) chasing my dad, who worked abroad to help ends meet while my mom stayed with me in Peru. This constant exploring around Latin America, since as early as I can remember, instilled in me a strong sense of pan-Latinidad, as well as a visceral understanding of our shared struggles and stories as Latin Americans.
Eventually, when I turned 13, my parents and I moved to Brasília, Brazil, where we lived for the next four years. I credit my time in Brazil for waking me up even further to the ravages of socioeconomic inequality in the continent and the rampant colorism that affects Latin American countries, creating Latin America’s own deleterious brand of anti-black, anti-indigenous racism. If my formative childhood years hadn’t already, it was my experiences in Brazil that solidified and galvanized the change-oriented progressivist in me.
In 2004, I moved to the US for college. While I call the US home now (even though my passport says otherwise), it’s in Latin America where my values were forged -- and where my whole family by blood still lives. My identities as an indigenous Latinx woman, and as an immigrant, are very much at the forefront, this month and every day, and are a key lens through which I approach the work I do, both within and outside the Foundation.
Casimiro de Jésus Peña Jr., Community Organizer Associate:
My abuelos from a young age instilled in me a spirit of hope. My grandpa Casimiro Peña aka ‘Pop’ had dreams of starting his own business, in a place where his children would have more opportunity. Despite being deported from the US on more than one occasion, with support from my abuela Juanita Peña aka ‘Mom’, they actualized their dreams, opening a bakery in Long Beach, CA named El Rey Bakery. My grandparents had no experience making or selling bread, but were confident that with determination and family we would find a way. Waking up at dawn as a kid to head to the bakery is how I learned the value of hard-work, hospitality, community, and class struggle.
After years of selling pan dulce, my grandpa bought a plot of land in my grandma's hometown of Merida, Yucatan. For 8 years my abuelos invested our bread earnings into constructing a home for our family in our homeland. There were several moments in our family's history, where money was tight, the recession’s impact heavy, and our family debated selling our casita in Merida. They received an offer on the house, and it was then when my abuela called everything off and said no. I thanked my abuela this summer for that choice, because had they sold the house, my siblings and I would’ve never have spent countless summers hanging from hamacas, entrenched in our culture, polishing our spanish, learning Yucateco recipes, and most importantly, sharing priceless quality time in our tierra with Mom & Pop. Sadly, El Rey Bakery is no more, but our casita in Merida has many memories to make yet. And the hope that started at the bakery with my abuelos, has carried with me everyday in all the work I do.