Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Hispanic Heritage Month and Cultural Competence

It's mid-October and we are wrapping up National Hispanic Heritage Month. Unlike other commemorative months, it is observed in two months starting on September 15 and ending on October 15. It starts mid-September to coincide with independence day celebrations of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, and runs through mid-October to coincide with the observance of Columbus Day on October 12, most recently referred to as Indigenous Peoples' Day or Dia de la Raza, as its referred to in Latin American countries. While the month is set aside to celebrate Hispanic cultures and acknowledge the contributions of Hispanic Americans, I see it as an opportunity to build cultural competence in ourselves and in our students. 

The American Psychological Association defines cultural competence as "the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one's own." For educators this means having the openness to adapt to the cultural needs of every learner. By building cultural competence in all students we validate the identities of underrepresented populations and give them a sense of belonging. Moreover, it's an opportunity to breakdown stereotypes and debunk myths about Hispanic culture that sadly are so prevalent in our country, and this extends well beyond October 15. 

You might be thinking. Would this be adding yet another initiative to our already full plates? And how does this celebrate Hispanic heritage?

First, it's not another initiative, but more of a mindset shift. And as to the celebration, there's no better way to celebrate and validate a heritage than by learning about the individuals that identify as Hispanic, especially when the Hispanics are such a vastly heterogeneous population.

Cultural competence can be built in small ways. Here are three important points to keep in mind:

  1. Reject all stereotypes. According to Webster, a stereotype “represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude or uncritical judgment.” While you may not consider yourself prejudiced, you may hold oversimplified opinions about Hispanics that are stereotypical in nature. And if we pretend to know things about an individual based on our knowledge or experience about their ethnicity, we are giving in to stereotypes. Even if you may not intend to harm, pander or patronize, or even if your assumption is accurate, stereotypes are offensive nonetheless, and there is no place for them in schools. Rethink stereotypes in any form and be an upstander by calling out stereotypical statements made by students and also colleagues. And this pertains to any ethnic group, not just Hispanics. Check out my previous post - "Is Stereotyping Another Form of Racism?" 
  2. Ask more than assume. Given that over 60% of the Hispanic population in the United States is Mexican or of Mexican descent, much of what many folks identify as the Hispanic culture is actually Mexican culture and is not representative of all of Spanish or Latin American culture. Some individuals are easily offended when you make assumptions about their birth country, cuisine, traditions, holidays, religious observances, physical features, socioeconomics or even language skills. There are actually 20 countries where Spanish is the official language and chances are that there may be a student or staff member from a country you know little about. Challenge yourself to learn more about their country, their story, and their culture. Check out this list of Spanish speaking countries. 
  3. Open your mind and heart. Being bi-cultural has given me a keen appreciation for multiculturalism. But what I find most interesting is the similarities I discover in individuals and cultures that I perceive to be radically different. Kindness and compassion know no boundary and friendliness is understood by all, even if you don't share a common language. We can preserve our own culture, values, and beliefs while honoring and celebrating cultures' that are different from our own. And while this mindset is healthy for us as individuals, it's essential for educators who are preparing young people so they can thrive in a global, multicultural society.
  4. Keep it fun! I'm in no way insinuating that we do away with the fun crafts and yummy foods - we certainly need that too, especially during these stressful times. Cultural competence makes us better human beings and it should be presented in a positive light. Most importantly, celebrating and elevating a culture should never demean another culture. 

Last but not least, remember this is about tidbits that you can weave into what you are doing. Even simply raising awareness can go a very long way,  Reflect and explore a pedagogical shift that will not add more to your already full plate, but will instead affirm learners, breakdown stereotypes, and debunk myths, validating those who otherwise may feel disconnected and expand horizons of those who may have limited knowledge of the Hispanic culture or don't interact with individuals of Hispanic heritage. And this is not fluff, this is based on research and aligns with current anti-racism efforts. Here's a great post on "Getting Started With Cultural Responsive Teaching."

If you have any ideas or success stories you'd like to share please add them to the comments below, or reach out to me by email or on Twitter. 

Until next time, take care and's the tidbits that make it all grand.