Smithsonian Latino Center

Intersectional Introspection: A Cross-Cultural Journey

2012 Young Ambassadors Program alumna, Jessica Hernandez.
2012 Young Ambassadors Program alumna, Jessica Hernandez.

Growing up in a small, predominantly-white, town south of Seattle, Washington, I didn’t see many people that looked like me. Despite this, I was raised in a modern Filipinx household, filled with the traditions and values shared by many Filipinx/Filipinx-American folks: knowing one’s place in the community, a strong sense of family over everything, and eating all foods with rice. I always knew what to expect in my household – the comforting smell of fresh sinigang; my ever-resilient and overprotective mother ushering my brother and I into completing our chores; my lolo enticing us with bibingka, carioca, and TV-time so that we would ditch those chores. It was safe. However, during every baptism, birthday party, or funeral, I would be reminded by how different I was. The comfort I experienced in my own home would be dashed away by comments from prying titas about my hair and my skin color. “You need to calm your hair, it’s so frizzy”. “Don’t stay out in the sun too long, you’re already so dark”. For you see, I am mestiza, a mix of Filipinx and “foreign” ancestry”. In my case, I am Filipinx and Puerto Rican. My father, born in the Dominican Republic to a Puerto Rican mother, immigrated to the United States as a child. My parents met in the late 1980s after my mother emigrated from the Philippines to the Bay Area in California. They married several years later, moved to Washington, and my brother and I were born. My parents divorced when I was in elementary school, and my father left shortly after, leaving my Filipinx mother to raise two mixed children on her own. There was a steep learning curve for her, particularly with learning how to tame my wild mess of curls, but she persisted, as all strong Filipinx women do. She instilled in me the values of Filipinx culture and how to be a decisive, compassionate Filipina – for which, I am forever grateful – but my cross-cultural connections were lost when my father left. My ties to my Latinx history and culture were severed, and I ventured onward to adulthood as a confused, multiracial individual: footing in two separate communities with only a true understanding of one, leaving the other to be a mystery to me.

Participating in the Young Ambassadors Program granted me my first opportunity to be a part of a larger Latinx community and create space for a part of myself that I had lost. Surrounded by so many passionate, driven, and resilient Latinx folks, I was able to reclaim my Latinx heritage and bring together the two halves of myself. Though I am still on a journey of intersectional identity – and I still have a ton to learn about my Puerto Rican heritage – the Young Ambassadors Program planted the seed for this self-discovery to grow. Filipinx and Latinx communities share similar values of community, integrity, family, and service, values that directly impacted my educational trajectory and career paths. After completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to graduate school and obtained a Master of Social Work (MSW), becoming the first in my family to receive a graduate degree. I have spent the last two years working for San Mateo County Children and Family Services as an emergency response social worker, responding to family crises and ensuring the safety of children within San Mateo County. The compassion and importance of community that I was surrounded by while growing up in a Filipinx household, coupled with the cultural humility I have experienced while learning about my Latinx roots, have supported me in being a better social worker and my ability to work with and aid families of diverse backgrounds and marginalized communities. Although my work now includes an added safety risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am reassured by how communities and families have come together to take care of each other during this difficult time, and I hope that my work will continue to support them.