The transitions of the holidays and observances throughout the year feel like a timed clock, constantly reminding us of our complex history while we move from one tangled celebration to the next. The United States observes National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, a 30-day period in which the anniversaries of independence for Latin American countries including Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua take place. The term “Hispanic” refers to people, cultures, or countries relating to Spain that speak the Spanish language, especially relating to Latin American descent of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin living in the U.S.
To me, the term “Hispanic” feels complicated because it prioritizes a Spanish identity that erases all of the distinct and unique Indigenous and Black identities that the Spanish exploited, invaded, starved, and annihilated. Coming to terms with that erasure and owning the culture that Spanish-colonized countries are able to establish identity with, is something complicated, and yet beautiful to celebrate.
My mother’s side of the family is from Mexico; she was born and raised in Cuernavaca, Morelos. When she turned 28, she moved to Grapevine, Texas, where she met my Euro-American father. I was lucky enough to grow up in my mother’s hometown, Cuernavaca, from ages 4 to 11, and experience the world she grew up in: eating street food, going to the fruit markets, making trips to Tepoztlán, Morelos, and seeing the Chinelos dance.
Today, I feel excited to work for a company that is led by a Spanish-speaking, proud Latino from Puerto Rico — Jose Tolosa. Jose became the CEO of Meow Wolf in January of this year after working at Viacom CBS—now known as Paramount—for 14 years. He spent 6 years as an executive champion for the employee resource group, representing over 2,000 Latinx employees at Viacom CBS, and pushed for diverse representation within the company, as well as in front of and behind the camera.
Jose’s father had been in Puerto Rico for several generations, while his mother’s side of the family had come from Cuba to escape communism in the ‘50s; Jose was the first in his family to move to the U.S from Puerto Rico.
I recently spoke to Jose about Hispanic Heritage Month…
Nisa: What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?
Jose: It's an opportunity to show pride and to showcase to others who might not know about the Latino heritage—who we are, where we come from, and to show all the contributions that we have made to American society. The better understanding we all have about our cultures and our differences, the better our American society is.
Nisa: How does your cultural background influence the way you approach leadership?
Jose: I don't hide my identity when I lead because I lead with authenticity, I bring my whole Latino self to the table. In that sense, I'd like to think that I lead with a lot of values that we carry. I think that I lead with empathy. I value relationships and creating warm relationships with others regardless of who they are, regardless of their ranking in a company.
Nisa: Have you ever felt as though others were stereotyping your identity in a professional setting? And if so, what has been your response? Do you have any advice for others in the same situation?
Jose: That has certainly happened a ton, particularly early in my career, but we [United States] have made a lot of progress. Looking back, I see many examples [of stereotyping] that I honestly didn't recognize at the time. I almost took it as a given that stereotyping and microaggressions are simply part of life and that there's a dominant group that has the liberty to perform those microaggressions towards other groups. In a way, it can lead you to work harder and make you want to prove yourself. So perhaps there’s a positive spin to that because you always felt that you needed to prove more.
Nisa: What are some ways that you're providing your kids with an opportunity to connect with their cultural heritage?
Jose: First and foremost, we gave them both Latino names, so they cannot escape [their heritage]. We speak Spanish at home and make sure there's a connection to the extended family in each one of the countries; my wife is from Argentina and I'm from Puerto Rico. Making sure they understand what those generations before did for us. And then, ultimately, making them feel proud about the heritage with the hope that they can carry [their heritage] with their own authenticity.
Discovering what being authentic to myself means is a never-ending journey. Growing up, dancing between my mother’s Latina, Mexican identity and my father’s white, American identity felt hazy, indefinite, and sometimes isolating.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided to take these feelings of isolation as an opportunity to explore my own identity, while finding inspiration and comfort in the ways others experience and identify with their own heritage.