A Hispanic Mineralist Reflects on the Culture and Legacy Woven into Hispanic Heritage Month

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By Kelley Butler & Jessica Castellana  

You ever connected with a stranger and left thinking, “I wish we were friends”? That’s how I felt after just one chat with Jessica Castellana. She is open, engaging, funny, kind, and empathetic. Jessica, in a word, sparkles.  

Although we aren’t friends (yet?), we are fellow Mineralists as well as active culture leaders and allies within Mineral’s ERG network. In addition to her other wonderful traits, Jessica is fearlessly vulnerable; she is launching Mineral’s first racialized ERG—one for Hispanic/Latine Mineralists and allies. I was delighted to talk with her as she reflected on Hispanic Heritage Month, which concluded Oct. 15, but for Jessica (and millions of Hispanic and Latine Americans) is lived and celebrated year-round.  

It’s in the spirit of that year-round celebration and honor that we’re posting the transcript of my chat with Jessica after Hispanic Heritage Month. I hope the joy and pride Jessica gains from her culture inspires you to celebrate it year-round as well.  

What is the earliest memory you have of being celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month? 

The first time that I was really exposed to Hispanic heritage was in school. I think kindergarten was the first time that I was really exposed to the celebration and the colorful things that come with Hispanic Heritage Month, aside from just leaving it on my day to day.  

That’s so wonderful. I know that for me, Black History Month in school was very limited to like three people, right? MLK, Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall. And then racism was over and Barack Obama was president, haha.  

Exactly, very limited in scope. And so it’s so great to grow up in an area so rich in Hispanic culture that it just sort of became like this natural and organic thing that, you know, Hispanic Heritage Month was just like, “Oh, that’s just another opportunity to really just live it up.”  

That’s awesome. So, how can non-Hispanic non-Latine people best observe Hispanic Heritage Month? How can we appreciate without appropriating?  

I think learning as one feels comfortable about Hispanic heritage and where it comes from, to build your allyship in an authentic way. So, I think learning about each other through cooking and maybe exchanging recipes is a great way of learning about Hispanic heritage and history—beyond what you know and love about Mexico! We have so many great Latin countries, and I think one of the things that always stuck out to me when I left South Florida was, for the most part, Hispanics were Mexican. So I think educating yourself on the different cultures and countries and knowing that Hispanic doesn’t mean Mexican. Mexico is great, but it shouldn’t define an entire culture. Really learning about the culture and history really can saturate you with good information on what Hispanic heritage is.  

I love that. And that there’s so many different entry points because Hispanic culture is all around us every day. I mean, everybody who rocked out to Bad Bunny at the Grammys, you know, to how everyone loves Taco Tuesday!  

This is true. I can’t you know, the food is this is just great Hispanic food. You just can’t debate it. It’s amazing.  

No doubt! I also wanted to ask, who is someone or someones in your life that helped you really grow up with a sense of pride in your culture?  

Definitely my parents. My parents are immigrants to this country, so I’m first generation [Hispanic American]. My parents are Cuban. They grew up and were raised in Cuba; as you know, or most people know, Cuba is a dictatorship. And getting out of Cuba is very, very difficult.  

So my parents had to go through a lot of sacrifices just to come to this country. One of the biggest ones was my dad had to leave the country without my mom and my older sister and flee to Panama trying to seek refuge. My dad was able to leave with a visa because he was in the Cuban military. So he left my mom and sister in Cuba, then was finally able to get them visas to Panama.  

The ultimate goal was to come to the US, but they got stuck in Panama through the Panamanian war, which was absolutely horrific from all my parents have shared with me. It was just really, really scary. And thankfully they had a small group of Cuban refugees that were in Panama with them, so they all kind of came together and were able to live off each other and resources and try to stay as long as they could and try to stay safe. Finally, and I don’t know this person’s name, but there was a Cuban in Miami who had a good amount of money and heard that there were Cubans stuck in Panama. And he sent a plane to get them all and bring them to the US. My parents were able to come to the US, seek refuge, and become residents. And just a couple of years ago, they became citizens.  

They are definitely an inspiration, and I think [their story] teaches you to not take for granted this great country that we live in. We’re truly blessed.  

Wow. The courage, the determination, the faith it takes to think, “We don’t really know what’s on the other side of this, but we’re going to do our best and find out like.” What an incredible spirit to have in your life. So then with that, what is one thing that you wish people knew? I know that you mentioned that Hispanic means something besides Mexican. What else? If there’s one thing someone could take away knowing or believing about Hispanic culture, let it be ‘blank.’  

I think that we are willing to learn and grow from each other. I think sometimes Hispanic heritage, not that it could be intimidating to others, but it could be looked at like, “Oh, that’s weird or questionable.”  

But I think it’s more important to know that we can all grow from each other. Like I told my friends and family, “My Spanish is here for all of you.” And I think sharing in that community mindset, and taking away that at the end of the day, we’re all people. We’re all in this together.  

I know we’re living in hard times, but just lean on each other and embrace each other’s cultures because there are so many good things about every culture that we can share—food, traditions, and fun things that we can share from each other.  

So I think it’s important to, I think, know we’re willing to learn, and to be willing to learn yourself. We’re all different, but we can all work together for the greater good.  

I speak very little—like maybe fourth-grade—Spanish. I only mention it because like you said, engaging with Hispanic culture can feel intimidating, because I definitely don’t want to come across as like some ignorant American trying to speak Spanish. And so a lot of times I don’t, but maybe I’ll be brave in your honor and give it a try more often. 

Please do! I married an Italian, and my parents speak no English, so I’m the translator! But I tell my husband all the time that he should try and if he messes up it’s okay. Definitely give yourself grace; you’re trying, which is what’s important.  

I love that. And I think that that’s the perfect way to just kind of capture all of this. We all have something that we can learn from one another. And now, if no other time, is when we can and should be leaning on one another.  

 Yes, and open minds. I definitely think open minds to hearing each other is super important to learning.  

So wonderful. Thank you so much. This has been the highlight of my day. Please give my best to your parents; I’m so blown away by their story and inspired by the incredible legacy that they’ve built and are passing along to you.  

Thank you for your time. Thank you for hearing my story.  

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