Volunteers celebrate their diverse cultures and identities in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month

By Peace Corps
Sept. 15, 2023

Being Hispanic means to something different to every Hispanic person. It’s influenced by their upbringing, their culture, their family, friends, and community. The list goes on and on. There isn’t one way of being Hispanic, and the experience is unique to every individual.

This year, for Hispanic Heritage Month, we are highlighting the diversity of our Volunteers’ culture and experience by sharing some of their favorite things about being Hispanic.

Giselle

Giselle serves as a Sustainable Agriculture Systems Volunteer in community in Panama.
Peace Corps Panama Agriculture Volunteer Giselle wanted to serve in a Latin American country to learn about fellow Latinos.

Giselle is a first-generation Chicana (Mexican American) serving in Panama. Growing up she remembers the smell of chiles secos asando (dried chili peppers grilling) wafting through the house (and the coughing that it brought with it), and dancing to Mexican music. The diverse rhythms and sounds of Mexico are one of her favorite parts of her culture.

“Over the 35 states, music changes according to its region. Each genre very different from the other, but all great to dance to.”

Mexican food is as diverse as the music. It’s a unique blend of Spanish and indigenous Mexican cultures and is loaded with unique ingredients. Each region in Mexico has its own specific style of cooking and distinct dishes and ingredients. Giselle wishes more people knew about dishes like nopales guisados con chile (cactus in spicy sauce), corundas (tamale from Michoacán Mexico), pipián (sauce made from pumpkins seeds), and her personal favorite: carne de puerco adobada.

“It’s pork meat, specifically backbones drowned in a thick chile sauce that will slow cook so the meat is nice and soft and falls off the bones. And you can’t forget las tortillas hechas a mano (handmade tortillas).”

But it’s more just food and music. Giselle’s parents made sure Giselle knew and connected with her heritage. It’s in everything she does.

“I’ve carried my roots with me through my entire life and it’s highly important for me to incorporate it in every aspect in life. I’ve always had jobs in which I get to teach about my Mexican heritage or about the Latino community. Before beginning service, I knew I wanted to pick a Latin country so I can learn about fellow Latinos and share my culture and form connections with the Latino community. My family background is generational campesinos (farmers), and that inspired me to come out into a different Latin country as a Sustainable Agriculture Systems Volunteer to discover the practices and traditions that differ from my own.”

Axel

Volunteer Axel wears a hat.
Axel serves as a Youth Development Volunteer in Panama and says his Puerto Rican roots have helped him integrate with his community.

Youth Volunteer Axel loves his Puerto Rican culture and heritage. He loves the food, holidays, traditions, and cuisine of his island nation. But his favorite part of his Hispanic culture is the spirit of his people.

“I love the outgoing nature of the Puerto Rican lifestyle, and always spending time with loved ones.”

Puerto Ricans are called Boricua, which comes from Borikén, the island’s indigenous Taíno name. For many, Boricua is not just a word, it’s a way of life. It represents the culture and essence of the island’s people. The Puerto Rican culture is a blend of old and new, mixing indigenous, Spanish, and African traditions. Those influences are very present in the music, the festivals, and the food.

“I wish people knew more about Puerto Rican cuisine, and the different variety it has to offer.”

Some holidays are celebrated differently, too. Axel grew up celebrating el Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or Epiphany. On January 5, kids cut fresh grass, put it in a shoebox, and place it under their beds, the Christmas tree, or someplace else the three kings can easily find it, just like leaving cookies for Santa.

Axel has a deep appreciation for his heritage, traditions, and culture, and loves being Boricua.

“Puerto Rico is an amazing island with so many beautiful people. I’m proud to say that I’m from this island.

Karina

PCV Karina
Peace Corps Volunteer Karina says her duality makes it possible to for her to share parts of her American upbringing and her Guatemalan heritage with her community.

Peace Corps Colombia Volunteer Karina is proud of her Guatemalan heritage. She identifies as Latina, and to her, that label represents the culture and traditions of her family.

“Being born in the U.S., my parents raised to me to embrace and never forget my roots.”

Those roots extend to her Peace Corps service. Both her parents are extremely supportive of her choice to serve. Her mother’s family hosted Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala in the 1980s.

“My mom understands the beautiful relationships that blossom throughout service and the impact of the work of Peace Corps Volunteers. This unique understanding of Peace Corps service makes it a very special and prideful experience for my family.”

Karina’s service has also afforded her the opportunity to show her Colombian community how diverse the United States is. While she does not look or sound like what many expect from an American Volunteer, her duality makes it possible to for her to share parts of her American upbringing and her Guatemalan heritage.

“I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. Spanish at home with my parents and English with my friends. I am not just American nor just Guatemalan. I am both at the same time and embrace both of those parts of my identity proudly and equally.”

Edgar

Volunteer Edgar takes a selfie on a mountaintop
Edgar, who serves as a Volunteer in Panama, grew up in a Spanish-speaking community in Texas. He says his Spanish skills have allowed him to quickly connect with his community during service.

Edgar is a self-proclaimed Texican: a Mexican-American from Texas. He grew up in a Spanish-speaking immigrant community with other first-generation children who embraced being bicultural.

“Being a Chicano has allowed me to appreciate two societies whereby I can coexist between two cultures,” said Edgar, who is serving in Panama. “One day, I can celebrate a costumed holiday like Halloween, and the next day, remember my ancestors for Dia de los Muertos with ofrendas and alebrijes. This is my favorite part of my particular Hispanic culture: the unapologetic respect for the dead and the healthy relationship I’ve developed with the mysterious notion of death.”

Edgar is proud of his Hispanic identity and heritage. He doesn’t feel misplaced in American or Mexican societies. He feels lucky to have found a balance between both cultures.

This balance led to him having a different experience from non-Hispanic Volunteers during service. His duality and language skills have allowed him to quickly connect with his community and in ways that some of his fellow Volunteers have not.

“Within my language fluency, there’s a cultural understanding inherently shared throughout most of Latin America that I have the privilege of being privy to.”

Stephany

Stephany is a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Volunteer in Ecuador. She’s a first-generation Mexican American who grew up watching telenovelas with her sisters and grandma and whose favorite dish is mole. There are a lot of things she loves about her Mexican heritage, but Chinelos and music are her favorites.

Stephany poses in front of a flag.
Stephany is a first-generation Mexican American Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Ecuador.

“My family is from Morelos, Mexico. One of the traditions in Morelos are the Chinelos, which are a group of men or women disguised in lavish costumes with masks, robes, hats, and gloves.”

Originally, Chinelos mocked Europeans and European traditions from the colonial period.

“Today, they serve not only as a representation of our honor and pride for our heritage, but as a form of entertainment at weddings, quinceañeras, parties, etc. Chinelos dance to traditional Mexican music, which is also a part of my Hispanic culture that I love," Stephany said. "From bandas to corridos to norteñas and rancheras, our music offers something for everyone to love.”

Being bicultural allows Stephany to expand others’ perspectives. She’s able to introduce people to a culture they weren’t familiar with before just by sharing a bit about herself. It happened while she was back home in Georgia, and it happens now during service in Ecuador.

“While host country nationals are excited to learn about my American culture, I get asked just as many questions about my Mexican culture,” she said. “I get asked how spicy I like … my food, as well as if I listen to Peso Pluma. Host country nationals and I share many similarities, yet there are so many differences, so it’s fun to see how the cultures coincide.”

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