Herencia (eh-REHN-syah): Heritage; Noun. Something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor.
As a Mexican American who studies young people, culture, and decolonization, it’s hard for me to think and write about “Hispanic Heritage” and youth ministry without wanting to explain so much history and complexities. The herencia of Spanish-speaking peoples and their descendants in the U.S. is as diverse, complicated, and painful as it is beautiful and rich.
This is why I will begin by sharing an important tip: Do not let the term “Hispanic” guide your interactions with your students, their families, and their cultures. The term Hispanic was created to easily group together Spanish-speaking people from Latin America and Spain. Yet, it leaves out people from Latin America of Indigenous descent whose primary language is not Spanish. So, if you are looking to connect with, serve, and honor individual students and their families, then this term may be unhelpful.
Instead, I encourage you to focus on learning more about your students’ specific ethnic and cultural background. Focus on their cultural herencias.
Ethnic and cultural herencia is an important part of identity and belonging for students of Latin American and Spanish descent. Here are ways in which you can engage these very important aspects of their lives.
Be respectfully curious!
It’s okay to ask respectful questions about your students’ cultures, traditions, and histories. You may find that your students and their families like sharing their culture. Like all cultures, there is a diversity of traditions within various Latina cultures, and each family makes each tradition their own. So, you might have much to learn even from students with whom you share the same ethnic background.
This is particularly true when it comes to food. Inviting students to bring a dish to share with others and talk about some of the stories or traditions associated with the dish is a great way to create a space where students can feel comfortable and culturally aware. This also fosters a space of belonging as their whole ethnic selves. This activity can also be a way to start engaging your students’ parents. Latin American cultures tend to be highly relational and familial. So, building a relationship with your students’ parents is a great way to foster engagement. You can start by taking some time to give parents an explanation of the activity and encouraging them to talk to their student about the dish so they can teach the other students about it.
Some students and their families are affected by situations and decisions that happen in and outside of the US. This may seem like a daunting task when many of our screens are flooded with news from all over the world. But our students don’t need us to be experts on world history or foreign policy. They need our understanding and support. You may be familiar and knowledgeable about some issues. However, listening to your students as they share in order to understand how they are being affected is the first step. Afterwards, you can search factual and neutral sources to deepen your understanding. Being informed will help you understand, empathize, follow up, and support your students.
Celebration is often what comes to mind when we think about acknowledging Latina/o and Spanish heritage. Spanish-speaking countries tend to have rich cultures and traditions that are recognized around the world, and these traditions are often shared through celebrations.
Celebrating holidays can be a fun and educational way of acknowledging your students’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For example, some Latin American countries celebrate Día del Niño (Children’s Day), or their country’s respective day of independence. Ask your students what types of cultural celebrations they would like to share with the youth group.
Another way of acknowledging through celebration can be through adding specific traditions to celebrations that are not particularly cultural. For example, ask your students what their favorite birthday celebration traditions are. These might be singing Feliz cumpleaños or Las Mañanitas. It might also be something like breaking a piñata!
Acknowledge tough realities and make space for lament.
Our students and their families may experience tough situations. We won’t always have the right words or the answers to their situations but we can still acknowledge our students’ experience and feelings. These are the moments when we are called to a ministry of presence and witness. We can’t always understand why some things happen, but we can be present, listen, empathize, and accompany our students through tough times.
Acknowledge liminal spaces.
Students with recent immigrant backgrounds may experience a sense of displacement that is colloquially expressed as “ni de aquí, ni de allá". This is a feeling that they are “neither from here, nor from there,”—they don’t fully belong in U.S. culture, or their ethnic cultures. They may feel they can’t be their full ethnic selves outside their homes, and when they are home there may be moments of tension when they feel the American part of themselves is not accepted. These are multicultural, possibly multiethnic students with complex and rich herencias. Their identities are shaped by all of these cultural and ethnic influences. For these students, belonging means a ministry that accepts all of who they are and offers space for them to express the tensions of their ethnic and cultural identities.
Listen to herencia stories.
Inviting your students and their families to tell their stories can be an incredibly rewarding experience. The truth for all of us is that unless we are Indigenous, immigration is part of our history. You can have students, whether they are recent immigrants or have distant immigrant histories, ask their family members about how their family came to live in your area. Then, students can share these stories with others. Their family members could also share. While this may require the students to interpret to English, it can signal to a family that they can be engaged in their student’s discipleship. This can also be a recovery of oral traditions, which are formational not just for young people, but also for communities as people of empathy and solidarity.
Teach biblical immigration stories.
There are plenty of immigration stories in the Bible. Jesus’ own story is one of immigration, of multiculturalism and ethnic herencias. The stories of Abraham, Joseph, the Exodus, Ruth, and Esther are some of the biblical narratives you can use to teach about immigration, multicultural encounters, and multiethnic living. Discipling our students in this way helps them know that immigration is a part of the biblical narrative and that God can be present in their experience just as God was present in the immigration stories of God’s people in the Bible.
Create time for rest.
One of the realities students with immigrant backgrounds may face is a pressure to constantly be haciendo algo (doing something). Some students might have full loads with their school work and extra curriculars. But they may also have additional responsibilities at home, like needing to care for their siblings—or even work a part time job to help their family. The older, or immigrant, generation’s survival response, strong work ethic, and other outside pressures may influence your students to forgo rest. Some may also have feelings of guilt associated with rest. They may think, “How can I rest when my parents work so hard for my siblings and me?”
Students can benefit from environments where they are not expected to perform, complete tasks, or show accomplishment. Plan moments when instead of focusing on doing, they can just be. You can even ask your students what helps them rest. You might teach about Sabbath practices of rest, and incorporate some of them into your youth ministry.
Recognizing herencia is not just about celebrating the culture, food, traditions, and labor Latinas/os or Spaniards contribute to U.S. culture and communities. It is also about acknowledging the past and present struggles, historical injustice, and the future we are hoping for and forming. Learning about, acknowledging, and recovering your students’ herencia can enrich their identity, belonging, and discipleship, as well as enriching your youth ministry.
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