GymHawks Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The GymHawks are proud to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. Marissa Rojas, Karina Muñoz, Hanna Castillo and JerQuavia Henderson sat down to discuss their heritage including traditions, memories, and people who inspire them.

Introduce Yourself and describe your heritage and/or family roots.

Marissa: My name is Marissa Rojas, and I am Mexican. My grandparents were all immigrants from Mexico and came to start a new life in America. On my mom’s side, my grandma was from Silao, Guanajuato, and my grandpa was from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León. They came to the United States just after getting married at 22. On my dad’s side, my grandma is from Monterrey, Nuevo León, and my grandpa is from San Luis Potosí. They also come to the United States while in their 20s.

Karina: My name is Karina Muñoz and I am Puerto Rican American. Both sets of my grandparents were born in Puerto Rico. My mother’s side of the family comes from both the west coast and the east coast of the Island (Aguadilla and Santurce). My father’s side of the family is from Agua Buena and Caguas.

Hanna: My name is Hanna Castillo. I was raised by my two parents, Ana and Luis Castillo along with my older sister, Daniela Castillo. My mom moved to America from Venezuela alone when she was 9 years old. My grandmother wanted to create a better life for her. My father moved from Puerto Rico to America when he was 10. I am a beautiful mix of Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, and Cuban.

JerQuavia: My name is JerQuavia Henderson. I am Afro-Latina with roots from the country of Cuba.

Discuss your upbringing. Was your heritage involved or taught?

Marissa: While growing up, my heritage was always involved, so it was and still is a huge part of my life. I was brought up with many traditional celebrations in a very Hispanic household. Overall, one of the biggest traditions is just coming together as one big family for all occasions. I was lucky to have been cared for by my Abuela (grandmother), Maria, my mom’s mother. She only spoke Spanish to me as did my parents. I was not only spoken to in Spanish, but I was able to learn about my culture in regard to traditions and values through everything my family did, as it was demonstrated through their attitudes and actions. My grandma would teach me songs and sayings in Spanish. I was also able to have the pleasure of eating authentic food and was able to pick up on some recipes as I grew up. My grandma has been such an influential person in my life and has helped me gather a lot of the traditions that I carry with me today. So, recipes and cooking were things that I learned, but this culture was always involved and the norm in my household.

Karina: As I grew up, my heritage was a constant part of my everyday life. My mother would always make traditional Spanish meals like Arroz y Habichuelas (Rice and Beans), Tostones, maduros, etc. Music is a big part of my family so there is always music playing at any given moment. It arranges from genres from Salsa, Reggaeton, Merengue, Bachata, Cumbia

Hanna: Growing up in my household, heritage was more or less required. My grandmother didn’t know English and both of my parents first language was Spanish, so my sister and I learned it at the same time as English. One of the biggest parts of our culture is food. My favorite Venezuelan food is Reina Pepiada. The main part is the arepa, a cornmeal patty, and then you stuff it with a mixture of avocado and chicken. My favorite Puerto Rican food is Arroz con gandules, basically rice and beans. Cuban food will forever be my favorite—I especially love the breakfast pastries I would get with my grandma. I love how my family always made sure I knew where I came from, and one of the best ways to do that was through food.

How do you celebrate or honor your heritage/culture?

Marissa: My family is very large and that is something that I absolutely love being a part of. They are all involved in my life, and we are all so thankful to be a part of this culture. I have a lot of family down in Mexico too. Whether it is a birthday, Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, my family always makes time to spend it with each other. These events include lots of authentic foods, decorations, piñatas, Spanish music, mariachi bands, and more. Some other holidays that I celebrate include Día de Muertos, Las Posadas, and Día de Los Reyes. In my family we also have a day named “Tamale Day,” where all my family comes over to my house and we have an assembly line to make homemade tamales. This is a tradition my family has been doing for 15 years! Another tradition within my culture is a girl’s 15th birthday. This celebration is called a quinceañera and it is a tradition to honor young girls, as they enter womanhood. There are even small traditions in everyday life that reflect my culture too. For example, during my childhood, every Sunday my family would go over to my grandma’s house for an authentic dinner.

Karina: I would say that Christmas Eve is a big part of Puerto Rican tradition. I always know that there is going to be traditional Puerto Rican dishes like Arroz con Gandules, Pastelles, Flan, Pernil, Alcapurrias, etc. The music is always blasting at all the family gatherings. Once the music is playing, someone immediately starts dancing or they whip out the maracas, bongos, guiros. It is also a tradition to watch the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. They are known for having the biggest Puerto Rican Parade.

Hanna: The main way I celebrate my culture is by being with family. Anytime we have family events, we all know it’s going to be a blast with one another.

JerQuavia: In our culture, when a family member passes, we honor them by celebrating life. Funerals are a celebration of life as we wear that persons favorite color, cook and eat their favorite dishes, and speak of them in present tense. It is especially important that we keep their memory alive through story telling for the younger generations to come.

What have you learned or unlearned about your heritage since being at Iowa?

Marissa: While being at Iowa, I do not think I have unlearned anything, however, it can be difficult at times to continue to honor my culture. While some aspects can get buried over time, such as simply speaking Spanish, I try really hard to embrace everything that I have grown up with and celebrate my differences. In fact, I have learned to embrace my heritage and express this unique side that I have the incredible opportunity to be a part of. Before I came to Iowa, I was surrounded by my family, so everyone was the same in a cultural aspect, but by being here in Iowa, I began to realize that not everyone may be aware of this culture and its traditions, so this has given me the opportunity to teach others about this part of my identity while being able to rediscover the traditions that I have grown up with.

Karina: I never knew how much I was going to miss traditional Puerto Rican food until I left my home state. A lot of the grocery stories do not carry a lot of the products that I would need to make certain dishes. At home, the local Walmart has an entire international food aisle, where I have access to many Goya products like Sazon, Adobo, Jamon packets, etc. It came to the point where my mom had to send me a box full of beans and seasonings because the stores here do not carry those products.

Hanna: The hardest part about being in Iowa is the fact that no one speaks Spanish. Sometimes when I visit home I get a bit frustrated because I start stuttering or forgetting words in Spanish. I haven’t necessarily unlearned my Spanish but it is a bit more difficult to keep up with since I’m so far from home.