Hispanic Heritage Month is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the history, art, food, music, and traditions of the culture. It is also a time for us to truly understand and appreciate the immense diversity of the Latinx community so we can be better allies all year long. That starts by sharing its collection of stories and truths.
I recently sat down with Stephanie Perez and David Añón to talk about what it means to be Latinx today, as well as their greatest personal ambitions and the toughest challenges faced by those of Hispanic origins. As co-leaders of Zebra’s UNIDOZ inclusion network, Stephanie and David work to elevate Latinx voices and build awareness of key issues facing the community. They also aim to showcase the unique talents, skills and perspectives brought forth by Latinx individuals like themselves and inspire an even more beautiful and accepting global culture.
One of the ways they’ve chosen to affect change is by sharing their own personal stories and goals in the hope it will give others strength and solace in knowing they’re not alone. Below is an excerpt from our very candid conversation:
Monica: Let’s start by talking about the UNIDOZ inclusion network? What is its purpose and mission?
Stephanie: The mission of UNIDOZ is to be a positive force in the Hispanic and Latinx community. We do that through networking, supporting, and advocating for the employment, development, and retainment of Hispanics and Latinx employees and allies within our workforce. The word “unidos” actually means “united” in both Spanish and Portuguese. We wanted something that would work in both languages, not just in Spanish, to be inclusive. We changed the “s” to a “z” at the end to represent all Zebras in the Latinx community.
Monica: Why did you and others within Zebra decide to establish this particular inclusion network?
Stephanie: We were compelled to start a Hispanic inclusion network as soon as we realized how Zebra’s other inclusion networks were working like a knowledge hub. While attending events for other inclusion networks, we quickly realized we wanted to learn more. We reached out to our inclusion and diversity senior advisor at the time to ask if there was anything in the works for a Hispanic or Latinx inclusion network and they suggested we take a shot and build one out. We thought to ourselves, “imagine how many Zebras’ lives could be impacted by the stories we would tell.” So, UNIDOZ was born. The “familia” – as we like to call it – has grown tremendously, and they’re always willing to lend a hand.
Monica: As founding members of UNIDOZ, you’ve both had the opportunity to engage with Zebra’s Latinx community in many ways. Can you tell us about some of the challenges and triumphs they’re experiencing in their lives?
David: Absolutely. The Latinx community is very diverse, and each individual has their own story. We’re categorized as a certain group, but in actuality we’re very diverse in terms of our struggles, opportunities, socio-economic status, physical appearances and views. Despite all of these, there are some fantastic commonalities and values we share. For me, what comes to mind is the power and responsibility of being “first.” First in the family to leave your country, either voluntarily or involuntarily. First to complete higher education. First to speak a foreign language. First to own a home. There are many firsts. At Zebra, the Latinx community thrives. We are embedded in just about every aspect of the business. I feel we are given an equal opportunity to demonstrate our worth and excel. Though we all may have different pasts, Zebra gives us a path to grow professionally.
Stephanie: David’s right. I think the best part about UNIDOZ is really knowing there are so many different backgrounds within the Zebra Latinx community – and the global Hispanic community. There’s so much diversity and richness across all these different cultures. For a lot of people, when they think about Hispanics or Latinxs, they just think about Mexico as the country of origin. It’s really the first thing that comes to mind. So, you often see these stereotypes with sombreros and margaritas. And yes, I am Mexican and can confirm we do like tacos and margaritas occasionally. But there is a lot that people get wrong about what really makes us who we are. Plus, there are so many other countries out there with very different traditions that I had never heard of. So, one awesome thing we’re doing for Hispanic Heritage Month is asking volunteers to help us showcase the breadth and depth of the Latinx culture by showcasing the histories, foods, arts, and traditions of different countries so people can become more aware of how unique and diverse we really are as a community.
Monica: If you are comfortable to do so, can you talk about some of the other biases you’ve seen against members of the Latinx community or experienced personally?
David: Yes, this is a common occurrence. Unfortunately, this even occurs within the Latinx community itself: stereotyping one country, ancestry, accent, physical appearance and more. When I was younger, I had lighter hair and I guess I looked more “Anglo.” As newlyweds and having saved up for a down payment, we moved into our first home in a new development. I spent many hours every weekend mowing, landscaping or in my garage working on projects. Everyone was new to the community, and if I’d see a neighbor I would wave, say hello – the usual greetings. One day, the neighbor – non-Hispanic – who lived directly across from us, and who we frequently exchanged greetings, heard me speaking Spanish to another neighbor. That was the last day he ever spoke or acknowledged me again. It really caught me off guard, but I came to the conclusion that ultimately it was his own issue, not mine. Like this example, there have been more – some minor and laughable and others significant. Professionally, I have experienced biases in the past as well, but I feel it is really up to each individual to take a stand and call it out immediately. Biases, discrimination and sense of entitlement have no place in the workforce. All our constructive and diverse opinions matter. I embrace “Be Here Now.” I can’t change the past but do have the responsibility to foster around me a “now” that is fair, equal and tolerant.
Monica: Stephanie, is this something you can relate to?
Stephanie: I spent many years of my life hiding away who I really was. When I was younger, I would always get embarrassed if my parents spoke Spanish in public or if I had to correct their English if they pronounced something wrong. And this was mainly fueled by speech therapy classes I attended when I was younger. I wanted to strip away my accent, childhood bullies and everything that comes along with growing up. But as I started to grow older, I realized I couldn’t take away who I was. So, now I take pride in the fact that I am Mexican, and I am bilingual, and I can think in two languages at the same time. I really urge others to not make the same mistake I did.
Monica: With the Hispanic culture rooted very differently from country to country, even region to region, have you seen geographic disparities in the challenges faced by Latinx community members?
David: Regional disparities do exist, and I’d dare to say this applies to other groups as well, not just Hispanics/Latinx. Migration (voluntary or involuntary) typically brings certain elements each individual must face. Some will be positive and some not so pleasant. It’s difficult to compare because it’s not so cut and dry. Of course, there are socio-economic and political factors that are vastly different between regions, even within countries in the same region. I believe education and opportunity are key elements that contribute to the variances between regions and countries. Though Latinx graduation rates and higher education percentages are increasing in the U.S., we are still behind. We are the largest minority in the U.S., yet our representation in the workforce is lower – it actually gets even lower at executive-level roles. UNIDOZ wants to be a catalyst of change and a resource for all Latinxs within Zebra. From a community perspective, we support the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement (HACE). It is through some of our actions that we hope to bridge the disparity gap.
Stephanie: We have also been focusing recently on COVID-19 management. Something I wasn’t aware of until recently is that a lot of people within South and Central American countries are flying to North America to get vaccines because there is such limited availability back home right now. So, we’re also going to have an event during Hispanic Heritage Month to discuss COVID-19 management, the economic instability within those countries, and how they’re handling those kinds of hardships currently.
Monica: Building upon something you said earlier about the role art plays in defining the Hispanic culture, are there certain Latinx authors or artists you have read or listened to that have struck a chord with you? Perhaps their books or music express the Latinx experience in a meaningful way.
David: That’s a great question around Hispanic heritage and how we as Latinxs really form the fabric of a society within the Zebra community. There are two books that for me are quite important. One is called “Take Me with You.” The author’s name is Carlos Frias, and it’s about some emotional struggles around a political prisoner who must flee a country and the son who must go back to do a report. But there is this stigma about not being able to go back to a communist nation – it’s very compelling when you break it down. The novel shows that life is like a gift shop, and I think it’s this type of representation within the book that really shows the passion and the emotion many Hispanic immigrants are facing. The other book is one I read recently by Leila Cobo, the executive vice president of Latin Billboard Music. It’s called “Decoding Despacito” about the song “Despacito,” and it’s an oral history of Latin music. It really speaks to how Latinxs within the music industry have paved the way for the recognition of us as a minority. Hispanic Heritage Month is a time for us to reflect, to admire those who have pioneered the way and to celebrate the uniqueness that we have, together with our allies.
Stephanie: I’m reading the novel by Erika Sánchez called “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” about a character who is a Chicago high school student navigating the tribulations of following her dreams of becoming a writer while dealing with the death of her sister. However, she comes to realize her sister may not have been as “perfect” as she seemed. I think it’s so awesome to see a story that follows young Hispanic women who are trying to find the truth about people and the world around them, and they end up finding themselves. And with my own background, as I mentioned previously, this kind of novel really resonates and strikes a chord with me.
Monica: Is there something you would say to members of the Latinx community to help give them the strength and courage to continue to forge a path forward, whether they’re pursuing a better education or trying to advance their careers?
David: I’d say pursue your passion and show your worth. Never allow yourself to be your worst enemy. If you have a seat at the table, it is because you belong there. You have a voice, an opinion and experience. Never allow your own insecurities to hold you back. For example, having an accent is a funny thing. Some may see it as something negative, but to me it should be a badge that is displayed with pride. Being able to convey a message in a language other than one’s native language is an amazing accomplishment. Always keep a positive outlook.
Stephanie: I am a first-generation college student – my parents’ first-born daughter. Something that really stuck with me was, “if I’m pursuing a better education and trying to advance my career, how is that helping me?” But also, “how is that going to help pave the way for others?” So, the way I started to look at it was: “if I go to college to get my education, work at Zebra, and continue my career, could that help my sister later be able to pave the same path?” And I think that’s something that really brings me the strength and courage to continue doing the things I do. Family is a big part of our culture in the Latinx and Hispanic community. So, something that brings me the strength and courage to continue is knowing my family will always be there to support me and will always be proud of the things I do.
Monica: How can we, as allies, become more aware and respectful of individual’s experiences, traditions, and beliefs and help foster a culture of belonging in the workplace, social settings and within our neighborhoods or homes?
Stephanie: I believe the best way is to become educated. But understand that what you learn is up to you, so do the research. Ask your coworkers, ask your friends, and really listen. There’s a difference between active and passive listening, and if you do happen to make a mistake, know how to react. Listen to the response, learn from it, and apologize – even if it wasn’t your intent to hurt them.
David: I’d say start at “curious.” A few years ago, I went through the Leaders in Action program and still carry my Mood Elevator card with me. On the back I wrote, “I will be a source of positive energy and influence for Zebra.” Being an ally is powerful and to me shows that positive commitment we all should make to embrace and celebrate differences. An ally looks beyond what is familiar, comforting and perhaps even safe to truly show empathy and acceptance.
Monica: Well, we’re grateful you are both a part of Zebra Nation. You’re making quite an impact beyond your day-to-day professional roles, and we appreciate all you’re doing as champions of inclusion and diversity to help celebrate the Latinx community and address the challenges it faces. Zebra will continue to amplify Latinx voices and learn of their incredible influence on global culture while striving to be better allies each day. I encourage our readers to join Zebra in its efforts to create a culture of belonging in the workplace and the world as a whole.
Originally published here!
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