Hispanic Heritage Month begins on the 15th and while the intention of the four weeks is to recognize the achievements and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans in the United States; I do not self-identify as one.
Think about it. No one ever says, “Hi, I’m Hispanic. Where are you from?”
We first self-identify with either the country in which we were born in or trace our roots to.
Hi, I’m Hugo Balta and I am Peruvian-American.
There is a sense of pride that comes with being specific in self-identifying. It isn’t just a statement about me, but also about we — mi familia.
Hugo Balta Sr. was 22 years-old when he arrived in Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1960’s. Graciela Zavala was only 18 when she set foot in the same city a few years later. In an age when most young people are celebrating finishing high school and beginning the next chapter of their higher education, Hugo and Graciela were desperate.
They were thousands of miles away from home in a foreign land where they didn’t know the language or culture. I’m 45 years old, educated and experienced. I would be more frightened than I care to admit if you were to tell me that tomorrow I had to pack up my belongings and do the same thing. Thanks to my parents I will never have to know what that type of desperation feels like. However, I do know the type of courage it takes because I was witness to it.
My father worked two jobs; one was at an assembly line. Both forced him to leave our home at 3 in the morning and come back in the early evening. I have many memories of my father during my childhood, but nothing as vivid as him sleeping. The times I saw him in our apartment were mostly of him resting from a very long day’s work.
It wasn’t any easier for my mother. She too had multiple jobs including taking care of me. I tagged along many times as she cleaned offices and houses. She also worked in sweatshops sewing clothes. In the summer I would go visit her during lunch breaks seeing her drenched in sweat from the unbearable heat.
While for some children of Latino immigrants nationalistic pride diminishes with each new generation, commitment and support for one another remains strong. The feeling of “we’re in this together” nurtures an environment where “we win or lose as a team”. That is why when I graduated from the university my diploma had many recipients beginning with my parents.
My father never finished high school. My mother couldn’t afford a college education. But, together we switched the tassel on my graduation cap. I’ve been fortunate to have had many more career accomplishments since then. I’ve also had my share of setbacks. Through it all my parents and my family have directly or indirectly been involved. They selflessly lift me on their shoulders and help me reach higher and see farther than I ever will on my own two feet.
So, for me to self-identify as a Peruvian-American is to first acknowledge my parents. It is to keep their story alive. It is part of my story.
My colleagues and friends share similar narratives. While we are Hispanic or Latino, we are first Mexican, Mexican-American, Cuban, Cuban-American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian and the like. Millions of people with similar and distinct histories.
I am proud to be part of a larger group of people with a common history, culture and language described as Latinos and Hispanics. But as we celebrate the great things which unite us let us also celebrate those which make us unique.
Hugo Balta is senior director of multicultural content at ESPN. He is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists
(This article was first written for Fox News Latino on 8/31/15)