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 of our team members to share personal stories of family, tradition, and resilience.
When we open our doors to the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, we also hope to tell the inspiring stories that speak to the diversity of the Latinx diaspora, including the Latinx Obama Administration staffers who helped make our union a little more perfect through their dedication, ideas, and initiatives.
Chief of Staff, Development
Born in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, Mexico, and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I grew up cultivating the curiosity to bridge worlds from an early age: at first, the Spanish-speaking world I inhabited at home with the English-speaking one outside of it.
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 galvanized me to join the Peace Corps in Rwanda following graduation, seeking to pay it forward.
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 60s that my grandparents listened to, learning to cook family meals, and enjoying mezcal neat.
Catherine L. Aranda,
Director of Global Programs Quality & Impact
El Paso, Texas -- la frontera -- is home for me. Crossing the Rio Grande at different times in their lives, my two sets of grandparents made it to Texas from the state of Chihuahua. The collided trajectories of my parents led to our upbringing instilled with the values of family, public service, and hard work. I could not be prouder to be a Mexican-American woman, and I have my mother to thank for modeling early pride in our Latino roots. Alongside my three older siblings, I grew up hearing Spanglish, eating authentic Mexican food and shaking my hips trying to imitate Selena dancing “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” My childhood in El Paso was mostly peaceful and decorated with bright orange and pink sunsets behind the Guadalupe Mountains and the smell of wet rock after wild Texas rainstorms.
In the middle of my junior year in high school, we lost my mother to suicide. It wasn’t until I left for college the following year that I began to seek out my heritage and difference among a broader Latino community. She wasn’t around to see it, but I was her fourth baby to leave home for Stanford University and pursue a future with the love, passion, learning and ambition our parents made possible for all of us. The deep bonds with my father and siblings helped me heal and move forward. I often think about what I’d tell her to recap the past 19 years; it always ties back to music, culture, and family.
Chicago Engagement Associate, Community Engagement & Government Affairs
I was born and raised in Logan Square, Chicago. As many know, Logan Square has rapidly changed throughout the years due to gentrification. When I was a kid, my parents would not let me play outside because the streets were filled with drugs and violence. As I grew, my block was no longer my block. Neighbors moving out left and right until I no longer saw neighbors that looked like me and an abundance of luxury condos.
For a while, I struggled with my Mexican-American identity, changing the pronunciation of my name to make it easier for non-Spanish speakers to pronounce. Visiting my parent’s roots in Mexico was an eye opening experience that made me realize there was so much to celebrate in my Mexican identity. My family got the opportunity to open up the little corner store on our block they’ve been eyeing for years. Our little family business not only serves as a convenience store, but as a place to connect new neighbors to Mexican snacks, foods, and culture. I always make sure to share my culture through food and stories. I am proud to be Mexican-American with roots from Guerrero and Morelos!
Deputy Director, Strategy & Operations, My Brother’s Keeper 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 Danville, Kentucky, was when I learned to recite responses to a set of questions: “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. When it's safe, I plan to take them to visit our family in Mexico so they learn the value of critical exploration and self-discovery that was instilled in me.
If you’ve read this far and are still wondering...Yes, I was drinking coffee at a very young age.
Museum Collections Specialist
I’m Raul (Raulito to my family!). I was born and raised in a small city 30 miles north of Boston, MA called Lowell. My parents are island-born Puerto Ricans. As a child, Spanish and English were a conjoined form of verbal communication. My life was Spanglish, from the TV to the radio. English-speaking cartoons in the afternoon led to Spanish-language telenovelas and variety shows in the evening.
I’m constantly thinking about what it means to have this Latinx identity as it relates to the world around me. Most recently I had my DNA tested to look at how my genetic makeup coexists with what I know as someone who identifies as a Puerto Rican. From this experience I’ve learned about the complex nature of culture and society, and that forging my identity will be a continuous process. My curiosity continues…
Francisco Gutierrez Jr.,
Chicago Office Manager
Mexican food… it’s loved by many people but for this second-generation Mexican American, it’s healing to the soul. Gordito is something my parents have called me since I was a little kid. Essentially meaning “chubby boy,” they could always find me in the kitchen with my grandparents, helping out with my Tata’s ceviche or my Gram’s chocolate mole. They taught me that cooking Mexican food took more than just skill but that it took soul. My grandmother would tell me that people can taste spite or anger in food, so always cook with rancho music playing in the background so you and the food can be in good spirits. To this day, I celebrate my heritage and show my love through food. Teaching my friends and Irish partner how to cook tamales, enchiladas, and fresh homemade tortillas, all while blasting Vicente Fernandez is how I get down!
Luis A. Ibarra,
Brand & Design Senior Associate
I was born in Melrose Park, Illinois, just outside the city of Chicago. My parents and I moved back “home” before my first birthday. I spent my childhood surrounded by family in the city of Durango, Mexico. My first experience of the U.S. came when my parents decided to move us to Columbia, Missouri. I was 12-years-old, spoke no English and had dreams of a Saved by the Bell school experience, a dream that was short lived. We soon moved to Chicago to be closer to family and a community that looked, talked, and ate like us. I attended eighth grade in the Little Village neighborhood, high school in the Back of the Yards/Englewood, college at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), and have lived in the South, West, and North Sides of the city.
For the past 28 years, I’ve navigated two cultures, and tried to hold on to every little bit of Mexicanity in me, the stories of my family, my grandfather’s corridos, my mother’s food, and my dad's Mexican dadisms.
Today, celebrating my heritage is part of our daily life. I teach my kids what I was taught, we cook and eat the foods I ate as a child, we tell stories of family, and we listen to the music of my grandparent’s youth.
I am a proud Chicana with roots in Jalisco and Michoacán. Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, I didn’t have the opportunity to connect with my Latinidad outside of my home and oftentimes shied away from it, 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 indigenous Purepecha roots, about the socks my dad would sell at Maxwell Street Market, about the dozens upon dozens of Mexican immigrants who would stay in our family home (some friends and family, others complete strangers) until they could get on their feet. Oftentimes there would be several families staying with my grandparents; my grandmother teaching the women the art of cooking caldos and my grandfather helping the men find landscaping work. 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 I’d be the one to tell our family stories and that’s what I hope to do.
In Spring 2022, I graduated summa cum laude from the Latino Studies program at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a passion project that hoped would inform my own storytelling and identity exploration. For the first time in my life, I was able to learn about our history, about the Latin American and Caribbean diasporas that are so intricately combined and yet so vastly different. Latinx stories are unique, they’re vital to the fabric of our country and they have the power to make us rethink the concepts of race and ethnicity in the United States. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating our stories during Latinx Heritage month.
Dee Dee Mendoza,
Director of Development, Pacific Northern California & Northwest
I'm a third-generation Mexican-American from SoCal. Half of my childhood I spent in Latino neighborhoods in Pico Rivera and Whittier with dozens of cousins, and then my family moved to the Inland Empire where we could afford a house–very different culturally and politically!
The two sides of my family were also very different, spanning a really broad range of Mexican cultural identities, which was fun and interesting. Universally, though, we grew up on Motown, mariachi, old time crooners, and amazing food.
I went to Smith College in Massachusetts (first in my family), a catalytic departure from my SoCal environment. I wanted to step far outside of my previous experience, and at Smith I began to learn more about race, class, LGBTQ issues, and more. and how different stigmas can intersect and constrain people from realizing their fullest lives.
Today, my wife and I are raising our two children to explore and celebrate their mixed heritage. We hope they experience it as a gift that they are Latino, Asian, and European, and that they understand that identity is complex; it evolves; and that they have the power to define much of it for themselves. I'm still working on my Spanish, but I do make tamales from scratch!
Gabriela Peña Fraga,
Senior Vice President, Product & 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, and more) chasing my dad, who worked abroad to help make ends meet, while my mom stayed with me in Perú. 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 United States for college. While I call the US home now, 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.
I am a first-generation Dominican-American from New York City. I lived in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for the first five years of my life and transferred back to Harlem in New York City when I got older.
Growing up, my parents surrendered numerous things to ensure a better future for me. Every day, I thank them for their sacrifice and make them proud of their daughter. I graduated magna cum laude from SUNY Plattsburgh (Top 10 percent in my Education Opportunity Program class) and received a scholarship for a Masters of Science program at American University in Washington, DC. I am currently at John Jay College obtaining an Advanced Certificate in Criminal Investigation and plan to return to school to acquire another Masters of Science in Forensic Science. Even though I did not have mentors growing up, my family and I made it work through dedication and hard work. I work hard to prove to everyone including myself, that anyone can make it regardless of where they come from. My road was not easy, but I am glad I’m here because it has made me who I am today. I was raised to not give up on my objectives regardless of the difficulty life throws at me.
I am on this path for a reason, and this is just the beginning. I look forward to seeing what I can accomplish and continue to share my story as a first-generation Dominican-American.
I am my ancestors' wildest dream—I came from nothing and made something extraordinary out of my life.
I was born and raised in Venezuela until the age of ten, at which point my family decided to move to the United States and seek political asylum. While it was difficult for me to grasp what “political asylum” meant at such a young age, I tried my best to embrace and learn more about the culture of the U.S.
While trying to balance translating responsibilities for my parents or figuring out why math was so weird here, I devoured every book I encountered (anyone else like the Fudge series by Judy Blume?), learned all about American Girl dolls, and watched countless hours of VH1's I Love [insert decade here], while still making arepas and hallacas with my mom and listening to gaitas, still speaking Spanish at home, and watching novelas as a family. I felt like I had "adjusted" despite knowing I wasn't really from here but at the same time feeling conflicted about my home country and identity.
It was hard fielding questions from adults about why Venezuela was such a "mess" and expecting to be an expert on a complex topic when I was still trying to master the quadratic formula. I also learned what racism and discrimination were, and how someone asking if your family was related to Pablo Escobar or saying "but you don't look Venezuelan!" shouldn't quite cue the laugh track.
As I got older and eventually spent more time in the U.S. than I ever did in my home country, I finally learned to embrace all of my identities as an immigrant, a Venezuelan, and also an American. I put BBQ brisket in my arepas and dip my tequeños in mumbo sauce. I put Los Amigos Invisibles on the same playlist as Billie Eilish and I break out the Spanglish when just plain English doesn't quite capture what I want to say. All of these identities are ones that I am proud of and make me feel proud and empowered that I don't have to pick just one. I also learned to be most proud of my identity as a Latina, and knowing that when one of us achieves, we all achieve.
I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. A beautiful city that is representative of the diversity within the Latino community. However, every summer I would travel to my parents' hometown on the borderline of Zacatecas and Jalisco, Mexico. Here I would rise around 7am every morning to accompany my abuelita to milk the cows, feed her chickens and make a few stops around town to leave fresh homemade cheese. At the time, I remember wanting to stay in to watch the morning cartoons, but now that my abuela has passed, I realize that these were key moments in my life. So much of how I was raised goes back to those early mornings. As a first-generation Mexican-American, giving back to my community, working hard and lending a helping hand whenever possible are all values that I hold dear to my heart.
Today, I honor my Mexican heritage by listening to Tejano music, replicating the food my mom cooked when I was growing up and giving back to the communities that have been a part of my life.