Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating the ‘Salad Bowl’ with Jessica Huerta

Blog | 09/15/2021

Today marks the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month. To celebrate the diaspora of Hispanic stories and culture in our Tillman Scholar community, we’ve asked Tillman Scholars to reflect on what Hispanic Heritage Month means to them, as well the role their heritage plays in their studies and areas of impact. We’ll be publishing their reflections on the blog throughout Oct. 15. 

Yearning to be a force for good and part of something bigger than herself, 2020 Tillman Scholar Jessica Huerta enlisted in the Air Force after 9/11. As Jessica reflects on her heritage and celebrating her culture in United States, she opts out of the “melting pot” analogy for one that allows for the proper representation of all of the cultural flavors that make up our nation.

“A melting pot suggests that as ingredients heat up, they begin to lose the potency of their flavors. It’s not true that this happens to groups in the United States. I believe that we enjoy the colors of our traditional attires, foods, sounds of language, music, and the arts,” she said. “I prefer the salad bowl metaphor. Even with just a mix of lettuce we can appreciate the crisp taste of iceberg and determine the distinction of the peppery flavor of arugula. Same with us as people.”

Jessica conducted seminars as an equal opportunity adviser while serving in the military and often heard questions like, ‘”Why do we have these months? It just causes division when we are focusing on one specific race….” But she argues that heritage months such as this give us an opportunity to reflect on the merits and talents that an underrepresented group has contributed to the fabric of American life — and the privilege we have in doing so.

“This is a month of recognizing Latinx leaders, people in STEM, and also the people that help us live — working-class Latinx folks. Farm workers, caregivers, janitors, mechanics, construction workers, and landscapers — they deserve our humanity and recognition, too,” she said. “Often, we uphold those ‘that made it’ but this year, I hope we can take a moment to reflect and offer gratitude to those that are helping all of us ‘make it.'”

Her personal experiences with discrimination from an early age fueled her passion to become a leader in bridging the gaps in intersectional representation.

“My Latina heritage has influenced my work because I have felt the pains of discrimination since I was a child. I sought to break stereotypes and build bridges with kindness and dedication to excellence. I am very fortunate to have many opportunities offered to me and with each step I take, I recognize my privilege, I recognize that I to some extent represent my race and ethnicity, and that I have a duty to assist others break stereotypes and build bridges,” she said.

This belief in breaking stereotypes and building bridges continues in her academic work, where she researched media representation.

“I have conducted research on media representations of women in combat, taking an intersectional focus on how news organizations painted the picture of women serving when the Direct Ground Combat Exclusion Rule was repealed. It is important to recognize gender constructs, but also race and ethnicity, domestic roles, and sexuality. I found that in more than 175 articles, women in combat were framed as competent, legitimate warriors, but the diversity of women in our military was not discussed very much,” she noted.

“In my current work, I am looking at representations of dads wearing babies in social media. Again, I take an intersectional approach, keeping sex, gender, race and ethnicity, class, and sexuality in mind, to see how involved fathers are being framed in our evolving culture. In terms of race and ethnicity, there seems to be sufficient representation of white, Latino, and Asian fathers, but not sufficient representation of Black fathers. The more we, as a culture, see diverse groups represented well in news stories, social media, TV shows, movies, and so on, the more we can break stereotypes and build bridges.”

Jessica also noted the importance of bringing different cultures to the forefront of our everyday lives, which she does in a simple way: by ensuring she rolls the R in her last name and teaching others to do it, too.

“Early in my military career, I had a coworker whose last name was “Worth.” When people would call to him, I’d also look over, as if I thought the person was trying to say my name but was having trouble. I’d laugh and say, ‘Oh, not me. Ha, ha. Ok.’ But that simple little exchange made me think about how non-Spanish speakers are already rolling their Rs,” she said. “Now I can teach people to say my last name like this: ‘Where-th-ta. Start slow, then say it a little faster, then faster. Boom, you got it.’ People respond with smiles, laughter, and I feel just a tad bit more of a bond with them, and hopefully them to me. I also love to speak Spanglish with non-Spanish speakers in my community. They get a kick out of it and sometimes I say full sentences in Spanish just to mix things up a bit. Of course I translate, and then they learn new words!”

She also carries those lessons to her children, using Hispanic Heritage Month as an opportunity to talk to her children about cultural trailblazers, as well as the privileges they enjoy as Americans.

“Sometimes the discussion about that isn’t pleasant, but it is important,” she said. “We are light-skinned, American-born Latinos. We have citizenship, we have our basic needs, we are middle class, we have access to higher education, white-collar occupations, we take vacations all around the world (pre-pandemic), and most importantly—we are not overtly discriminated against by the color of our skin or national origin. Other ways I celebrate my heritage is by teaching my children about Latinx role models, like Ellen Ochoa, Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor, and Rueben Martinez.”

Their efforts — and the reach of Latino arts — are something she’s grateful to see and celebrate this month and beyond.

“When I was in Iraq, I went with my friend to a barbershop that had Mexican telenovelas that I seen as a child, dubbed in Arabic! American culture is not the only culture that has a global reach!” she said. “I especially enjoy when there are diverse representations of Latinos in the news (as journalists or subject matter experts), streaming series, movies, advertisements, civic representations, and leaders in our communities. I am happy to see their talents being shared across our nation, and globe! I love that we live in a generation where we can contribute to human knowledge, entertainment, and global innovation — that’s the salad bowl!