As a freshman at Kent State University, Erik Gomez felt hesitant to enter spaces where no one else looked like him, such as student government. Now director of governmental affairs for Undergraduate Student Government, junior political science major Gomez encourages others to take up space and begin making change.
“It’s just very intimidating when you walk into a space and you’re the only person that looks like you,” Gomez said. “Not only is that intimidating, but you then start to question, ‘Do I belong in this space? What do I offer? Why am I taking up this space?’ You feel like ‘other,’ that’s the word that comes to my mind.”
Celebrated annually from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15., Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to reflect on the many accomplishments of the Latinx and Hispanic community, advocate for more representation and educate others on the progress that still needs to be made.
Kent State’s Spanish and Latino Student Association (S.A.L.S.A.) focuses on creating a community around Latinx and Hispanic culture and promoting inclusivity. As the social media chair for S.A.L.S.A., Gomez engages with the community on the organization’s social media platforms and shares upcoming events.
Junior VCD major and S.A.L.S.A. President Miranda Sepúlveda said she wants the organization to build strong bonds with the Kent community after a disconnected year of Zoom meetings.
“It’s really great to have a more diverse group of people from Latin America, people from Hispanic countries, along with people who are just interested in the culture, so I think one of the biggest things is that we’re just trying to be a community to serve the needs of any student or member in the community of Kent that wants to learn more about Latinx and Hispanic culture,” Sepúlveda said.
Sepúlveda’s family is from Bayamón, Puerto Rico and she grew up in America in a predominantly white community. Fearing being perceived as different, Sepúlveda said her family pushed away aspects of their culture such as salsa music.
“When we were little, our family didn’t want to be different from all the other families and then when I grew up, I realized number one that I love salsa music, it’s just really good,” Sepúlveda said. “I’m actually named after a salsa musician, so we always joke that it’s in my blood.”
Although her father felt hesitant to speak Spanish in their small town, Sepúlveda began teaching herself the language in middle school to connect with older family members and learn more about her culture.
Before getting involved with S.A.L.S.A., Sepúlveda did not know about Hispanic Heritage Month since it was never celebrated in her school. Ever since finding out about this month, Sepúlveda said she has learned much more about her own culture and the cultures of others every year.
While educating others is an important part of Hispanic Heritage Month, demanding authentic representation is vital. In the media, Latinx and Hispanic actors are frequently given roles as maids, gardeners or drug dealers, which enforce harmful stereotypes.
“We need to see Latinx or Hispanic actors in roles where they are the main characters or they play a crucial part and we need to be discussing them in the news and media just talking about the accomplishments of the Hispanic and Latinx community,” Sepúlveda said.
Even within media that features Latino and Hispanic representation, Sepúlveda said colorism is often an issue. Some television shows and movies cast lighter-skinned Latinx and Hispanic characters and ignore the Afro-Latinx community as well as other identities that do not fit society’s view of what a Latinx or Hispanic person looks like.
“There’s no one way to look Hispanic, there’s not one way to act Hispanic, everyone’s completely different,” Gomez said. “There’s people with really fair skin, there’s people with really dark complexions and it’s just really important that everyone is represented.”
Junior theatre and political science major Natalia Cruz is the secretary for S.A.L.S.A. and has been involved in the organization since her freshman year. Cruz’s family is from Panama and she said that this Hispanic Heritage Month, she wants people to recognize the “bigger bond between all of us in the shared experiences that we have as Latin American people.”
Cruz also stresses a need for more diverse Latin American representation. Cruz said that the media typically draws a straight line regarding a person’s ethnicity or race which can erase a person’s Latinx or Hispanic identity, especially if they are a part of multiple communities.
“I think it just helps people feel more confident in themselves if they’re able to see themselves in the media they consume and it’s also fun to see people that are either from your country or look like you,” Cruz said.
There are countless Latinx and Hispanic icons to celebrate this Hispanic Heritage Month, and Cruz personally looks up to Frida Kahlo, Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan and Sonia Sotomayor. For Sepúlveda and Gomez, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez specifically stands out to them.
“One of my biggest role models is AOC just because how she sticks up for herself, especially in politics, is just really great to see especially because in our culture sometimes we’re taught, especially for women, not to say stuff and to let things go and so that’s something that stood out to me,” Sepúlveda said.
Gomez said he admires the advocacy work that Ocasio-Cortez has accomplished because he sees her as a leader who is “actually on the ground helping others.”
While Latinx and Hispanic representation has improved over the years with shows such as “Wizards of Waverly Place”, “On My Block”, “One Day at a Time”, “Gentefied”, “Vida” and many others, there is still work to be done.
To learn more about Latinx and Hispanic culture, the next S.A.L.S.A. meeting is Oct. 21 at 6:30 p.m. in the Student Multicultural Center.
This Hispanic Heritage Month, take the time to spread awareness and advocate for more diverse representation in the Latinx and Hispanic community. As Gomez said, take up space.
“I think the biggest thing is you can’t be what you can’t see,” Gomez said. “Once you see someone in a leadership position, that’s when you can recognize, ‘wow I can do that too and I belong there too.’”
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