Blanca Osorio Ortega and Noel Suarez are quite similar on paper. They both are students at the University of Indianapolis studying political science and international relations. They both grew up in Indiana, and both of their families come from Mexico. While their similarities do not end there, their similarities do not begin to cover the complexities of their individual experiences as Mexican Americans.
Osorio Ortega grew up in Greenwood, Indiana. Because it was a predominantly white community, she struggled during her elementary school years with being around people who did not look like her, Osorio Ortega said.
“Ever since I was young, I felt shy talking about my culture and speaking Spanish, just because nobody else did that. But throughout the years there have been other students coming in who are also Hispanics who speak Spanish and it was getting widely accepted,” Osorio Ortega said.
Now, Osorio Ortega is a first-generation college student, in addition to being a first-generation Mexican American in her family, she said. Her parents immigrated to the United States about 20 to 30 years ago and have told her their stories, she said.
“Ever since I was little, I heard stories of how it was a lot of hard work coming here. Most people in my family who came here for the first time would either go to New York or go to Maryland, because that’s where we had family members at first,” Osorio Ortega said. “It was easier for them to go over there and have a startup. After they had jobs, they earned enough money to move wherever they wanted. And somehow, they all ended up here in Indiana, because they’re all close family members.”
Suarez comes from Whiting, Indiana, a populated and diverse city located right next to Chicago, he said. Suarez’s family’s heritage stems from western and central Mexico, he said, and some of his family members that still live there are peanut farmers. He said he hopes to visit one day.
“My family’s heritage comes from Guadalajara, which is in Mexico,” Suarez said. “It’s more or less to the left side of Mexico. That’s my mom’s side. My grandpa’s side comes from more of central Mexico. And both of them immigrated to America. My grandpa, his parents, immigrated. So he was born in the US. My grandma had immigrated from Mexico when she was 15 or 16.”
Osorio Ortega said her family is predominantly Catholic. She said Christmas is the most important holiday to her family because it is a time when they can all be together, she said.
“We do this thing called Posadas. So everyone gathers around, like your aunts and uncles, and you have this little baby Jesus statue, and it represents baby Jesus,” Osorio Ortega said. “You sing hymns, and you just celebrate the coming of baby Jesus. It’s very different from what I’ve seen most of my friends do, just because they don’t really do that.”
Osorio Ortega also celebrates Mexican Independence Day, which occurs on Sept. 16 each year, she said. Her family has a big celebration to honor their independence, complete with family and food, she said. Her family does not celebrate the entire month of Hispanic Heritage Month but they do recognize it.
“We’re reminded by other people,” Osorio Ortega said. “In stores, they have special platters, and in restaurants they have these amazing deals if you buy a Mexican platter or something like that. My family appreciates it.”
Hispanic Heritage Month often flies under his radar, according to Suarez, although he does recognize its existence and has been trying to learn more about his culture these past few years. Suarez has gone to family to try to get more in touch with his culture, he said.
“Me and my mom are planning a trip within the next year or so to spend a few days down in Mexico, kind of where my grandma grew up,” Suarez said. “I talked to my grandpa because he’s really into genealogy, and he knows our heritage, and he did ancestry.com. He’s a huge wealth of knowledge. Whenever I see him, I ask him questions about our family, my grandma and my grandpa and all of that.”
As for cultural values, Suarez said that respecting your elders is a big one. In Hispanic culture, older family members tend to live with their children, he said.
“It’s really frowned upon to put them in a home or assisted living. … It’s like a slap in the face because in a way you’re saying you don’t want to deal with your parents and they are a burden to you,” Suarez said. “But having them live with you is a unifying way of bringing it [respect] back. They cared for you when you were younger. Bringing them into your home is returning the favor in a way.”
A common misconception about Hispanic culture, Osorio Ortega said, is that Hispanics need to learn English and that it is not a hard thing to learn. It is a difficult language to learn. But Hispanics are trying, and others need to be patient with them, she said. Osorio Ortega had a personal experience with this when she was a child, she said.
“I remember when I was really small, my mom was struggling to talk to the cashier,” Osorio Ortega said. “She knew what she wanted to say. She had some words in English that she remembered, but it was hard for her to say, and the cashier was so impatient. It was just awful. I remember trying to speak up for her, and I said, ‘This is what my mom wants.’ It’s just hard. People trying to say, ‘They have to speak English.’ They’re trying; it’s just not easy.”
Suarez also has witnessed exclusion based on his family’s identity, he said. There was an incident a few years ago that occurred when he was at the store with his mother, he said.
“The lady was rude. She was making some comments so my mom got into a little argument with her,” Suarez said. “So we ended up not getting anything and leaving the store.”
Suarez said that from his perspective, the two biggest misconceptions about Hispanics are that they are heavy drinkers and hard workers. He said these are the two basic stereotypes he has heard from those who know very little about his culture.
“It’s that they’re really hard workers, which is a backhanded compliment,” Suarez said. “It’s like they’re really hard workers, but they only do manual labor stuff because they can’t get a real job. And then the other one is they tend to be heavy drinkers. … No one in my family drinks.”
Osorio Ortega said she thinks that people are starting to recognize the growing Spanish population in the United States and are becoming more accommodating. People are understanding that a lot of Hispanics are immigrating here and are going to speak Spanish, she said.
“I think people are doing a really good job at noticing that we have a Hispanic population here. Let’s make them feel included,” Osorio Ortega said. “My sister goes to elementary [school], and her papers sometimes come in English and in Spanish. That helps my mom a lot. I think we’re getting there.”
Suarez said he would like others to know that the best way to gain more knowledge about the Hispanic culture would be to become immersed in it. The best way is to travel to Mexico and speak with the locals, he said.
Osorio Ortega said she would like others to know that Hispanics are welcoming to outsiders. You will never be left sitting alone if you’re at a party with them because they will include you by dancing with you and giving you food, she said.
“They’re going to make you dance even though you don’t want to. They’re going to feed you. They’re going to treat you so well just because the Hispanic community is so family-oriented,” Osorio Ortega said. “They make everyone feel included. … They try their hardest to speak to you in English, even though it’s hard. They’re very friendly, and they’re so outgoing. They’re amazing.”