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Contigo: Celebrating Latinx Heritage Month with Southeastern PA Organizer Elle

As we close out Latinx Heritage Month, we are reminded that celebrating our culture and learning more about the cultures of others extends beyond the boundaries of a calendar and into our daily lives. We are proud to call the Latinx community part of our family and we stand in solidarity for their rights, and that means making sure their voices are heard.

Join us in celebrating Latinx Heritage Month by honoring the histories, cultures, and contributions of Latinx communities. Meet the team at our organization that is bringing their cultures and experiences into the work they do with their community, from empowering Latinx patients, staff and volunteers to expanding efforts to improve sexual and reproductive health. 

The following is an interview with Southeastern PA Organizer Elle who works in the Philadelphia region. Right now she is engaging voters and volunteers ahead of the election. 

Where is your family from and what do you love best about your culture?

Elle: My parents are from Boriken, or Puerto Rico, and they came to the U.S. in the late 1980s. I was born in the Bronx, and that was a big time and area for people coming over from Puerto Rico.

I think what I love best about my culture is our diversity and resilience. Through it all, we love each other. We celebrate life through art, music, food and community and we maintain our power through all of our struggles. 

What brought you into political work?

Elle: When it comes to being passionate about politics and human rights, I’ve never been any other way. There were a series of events that occurred during my childhood and adolescence that brought me to where I am today. My parents are an interracial couple, and I lived in the area of Pennsylvania that borders Delaware and Maryland. There were a lot of angry white people who said awful things to my mother because they thought she was white, and that she had “tainted her blue blood.” What they said about my father was much worse and I won’t repeat them. At a young age, I heard so many hateful things, it’s sad because racism is definitely present in Latin America, but it’s not the same as it is here. My parents felt like they were in danger when they experienced racism in the United States, and they did not expect that in coming here. 

In sixth grade, we had to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and listening to the words it didn’t make sense to me. So I sat down. I sat down for a few days, until my teacher kicked me out of homeroom and told me I should go back to where I came from, which I guess for me is the Bronx. After that, I started paying attention more.

What inspires you to work with PPPA?

Elle: No issue stands on its own, so for me the cross movement work at Planned Parenthood is inspiring. Being able to connect the pieces for people, support the community, and work on so many different issues in addition to reproductive and sexual health is important. This organization allows me to work at the intersection of activism and education.

What challenges do you face?

Elle: A challenge for me is fighting assimilation and maintaining my most authentic self, understanding my own duality of cultures and holding onto that. I went through a period where I had to unlearn some self hate (like constantly straightening my beautifully curly hair). I was told that I am a white Latina, even though I’m not. And as I matured I learned that in the U.S. there is a focus on skin color and skin tone that makes room for people to assume that I have no struggles relative to race/ethnicity because I “look white”. Self identity is very complicated in Latin cultures.

Another challenge is believing the storytelling of my family, and the information that they preserved, over history books that focus on how white people decided to tell our stories. I remember the last time I saw my great grandfather in Puerto Rico I was 12 and he told me that he was Taíno, or aboriginal. I told him he was wrong, because it’s not what I had learned in school. He said “Baby, am I not in front of you in the flesh just as you are in front of me? We are real and we are here” Later it was proven that Taínos are not extinct. I took a DNA test and discovered that I’m nearly half Taíno. That was so powerful, and in hindsight, I learned the importance of our people hanging on to our island’s stories. The most authentic history is the one that comes from our people. 

How does your culture motivate you?

Elle: There’s a uniqueness to being first generation from a terrority like state, and an active Colonial one at that. My parents came here to have a better life, and my culture motivates me because I am the living descendent of my ancestors who made it out alive, and I can’t stop. Activism is my passion, to participate in the improvement of our communities is a must. As Borikuas, or Puerto Ricans, we coexist as different races and complex identities, and this white skin brings a history of pain as well, knowing that coexisting happened and how, but it is all mashed up into one beautiful culture. Sometimes I think about the hard reality that because of climate change Puerto Rico may someday not exist in our near future, but the more liberation we gain here in the U.S., the more people have the chance to relocate from P.R. and improve their quality of life. The community is becoming so much stronger here and if I can make a difference, then I’m going to. 

What do you wish more people knew?

Elle: First I want people to recognize the damage that the United States has done to Puerto Rico through a history of deceit, torture, and stolen land. And really, how different is it today? These are still active practices that are systemic. I want people to know the truth and educate themselves to understand our story and how it ties into America’s systemic racism and oppression. I also want people to understand that when it comes to being Latin, to never make assumptions. People do not get to choose my identity for me, and they do not get to assume that I am white, and then make a spectacle out of me and “other” me once they hear me speak. This is true for so many people, especially Afro-Latinx folks. You never know what the person in front of you is walking through the world with and who their ancestors are. 

To learn more about our team, read the full interviews with Alexis and Carol.


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