For racialized students, having access to cultural groups on campus isn’t a blanket solution to feeling like they have a place within their community.
By Sidra Jafri
Illustrations by Harry ClarkeG
rowing up in the predominantly white city of Niagara Falls, Ont., Miriam Valdes-Carletti always felt a disconnect with her Hispanic community. Having Salvadoran roots, she was one of a scarce handful of Latinx students at her Catholic high school. Her parents were divorced, and both communicated with Valdes-Carletti primarily in English at home. Although she loved the taste of Salvadoran foods like pupusas, the country’s national dish, most nights Valdes-Carletti’s parents tended to cook standard Western meals like pizza and pasta.
While she was never embarrassed of her culture, she was confused as to why people at her high school would call her racial slurs like “lettuce picker” when she brought salads to eat for lunch. In these moments, Valdes-Carletti would abandon her Hispanic identity to escape the name calling. Too young to understand that being inwardly or outwardly Latina didn’t make a difference to the bullies, she tried to stand up for herself by telling them she wasn’t really Latina.
“Yes, I look Hispanic but I don’t do anything Hispanic. I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t eat the cultural foods, I don’t dance folklore Mexican dance,” she remembers telling them.
But when Valdes-Carletti moved to Toronto to pursue her Bachelor of Journalism degree at Ryerson in 2014, she found herself suddenly surrounded by a multitude of cultures. It was inspiring for her to see how people in Toronto embraced their culture. She remembers feeling awestruck hearing a friend speak Korean over the phone to her mom in first year because that was something that she would’ve been picked on for in her own hometown. In Toronto, there seemed to be a lot more space to form a connection with your culture.
Things like this made Valdes-Carletti excited to find her own community on campus but she soon became disheartened at the campus fair during Frosh week.
“I remember seeing the Muslim Student Association, Egyptian Students Association, the Black Association [sic] and there was nothing for Hispanics. There was no group that I could really find myself with.”
It wasn’t until Valdes-Carletti’s fourth year that the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) was formed. At the organization’s first meet and greet for the members, laughter bounced around the walls of Oakham Lounge, embellished in blue and yellow. Valdes-Carletti walked among her peers, smiling from ear to ear at the sight of the Salvadoran flag laid out on the table and documenting her experience via Snapchat every chance she got.
While she immediately felt the familiarity of the family parties of her youth, she couldn’t help but think about how long she waited to join a group like this. After the meet and greet, she went to every single event the club offered but continued to remind herself to not get too attached to people, since it was her fourth and final year of university. Just when she felt like she found her place, it came with the bittersweet realization that she wouldn’t see many of these people again.
“I feel like I really missed out on…something I would have really loved during the four years—just the chance to connect with other Hispanic students.”
As Evanilde Bekkout explains in a 2014 Ryerson research paper, having a sense of identity within a group—be that cultural, religious or sexual—is important as it forms a sense of affiliation and loyalty. According to a 2016 paper published in The Journal of Happiness Studies, having healthy relationships and a sense of belonging to a group attributes to satisfaction with life, good mental wellbeing and overall happiness.
Ryerson University is home to more than 40 cultural and religious student associations. For students like Valdes-Carletti, who didn’t have much exposure to their culture in their youth, it’s especially important to have access to these kinds of groups. But for others, the presence of cultural groups aren’t always effective when they still feel a sense of exclusion within the community itself.
Daily News contributor Gabriella Van Rij says that society labels everything and every way a person is brought up, causing exclusion if you “don’t fit the mold.” Factors such as language and upbringing can make or break the level of cultural participation in a person’s life and can ultimately make them feel excluded or welcomed into their community and peers.
“When we talk about belonging as a need…no group is going to satisfy all our needs,” says Kathy Hogarth. Hogarth is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Waterloo University whose primary areas of research and teaching are on critical race, racism and equity.
“It is a real thing that even within groups, you have those who are excluded sometimes, or [through] perceived exclusion.”
Even Valdes-Carletti, who felt relieved to finally have a cultural group, says she still encountered barriers to feeling a sense of belonging, such as her inability to speak fluent Spanish, unlike many other members of OLAS.
In cases where students feel like they could be a part of their community but ultimately will appear like a black sheep with their intersectional identities, belonging can still seem like an unachievable feeling.
“I think belonging is an ideal that we are all striving for. Ultimately, we all want to feel that we belong to something,” says Hogarth.
However, Hogarth believes that standing out isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“There is value in difference and so we need to break away from the norm that tells us that if you are different, you should stay out.”G
rowing up, fifth-year politics and governance student Farida Dehwar* never allowed herself to be comfortable with her South Asian culture. At school, she saw other South Asian students being picked on for being “FOBs” or “fresh off the boat” when they came to class with their hair oiled and styled in a “greasy” braid, which implies they weren’t quick enough to assimilate to Western standards of beauty. When she started to learn more about herself in high school, Dehwar took comfort in musical theatre, drama and arts programs—all things that her parents felt like were a waste of time.
“[It] cast me aside from people that were part of my culture,” she says. “I guess I couldn’t really relate to other people that looked like me.”
A 2011 research paper by Sangeetha Navaratnam found that when parents and children have contrasting understandings of the Canadian education system, the negotiations of which career path to follow are often more complex. South Asian parents who didn’t receive an education within Canada were more likely to be adamant about the child being in a “professional” career, such as a doctor or engineer. The idea that “professional” careers were better options for South Asian children caused more emotional distress within participants. Dehwar and her family weren’t born in Canada, so her parents found it hard to agree with her artistic choices.
In her first and second years of university, Dehwar tried to attend events held by the Pakistani Students Association (PSA) with some of her friends. She found events like Qawwali night—a Sufi Islamic event devoted to singing—and PSA formals interesting but realized she still felt some of the same toxic pressures from her community to be something she was not.
“I feel like there’s a certain group of people that fit the box of a person that goes to or that is a part of PSA. [With] my intersecting identities, I kind of felt that I wouldn’t fit in very well as a queer person,” Dehwar says.
When it came to cultural or religious events, her mother would often insist on the importance of wearing a different outfit and being the best dressed to distract from the fact that she was often the tallest girl in a group. Because of this, Dehwar felt like a certain set of expectations came with being a part of PSA and wider South Asian culture. She didn’t enjoy dressing up or obsessing over what others thought of her and soon found herself losing interest in attending events thrown by PSA.
Her relationship with her friend group at the time began to change; as Dehwar became more honest with her identity and stopped attending cultural and PSA events, her friends continued to go—just as they had been doing for years prior to university—but without her.
As a mixed race person, Dehwar opts to introduce herself to others with her Mozambican identity, rather than her Pakistani one. She finds it easier to avoid any extra questions she doesn’t want to answer about her cultural practices and beliefs this way.
“It can be a little bit challenging…juggling these two identities and if people know [that I’m Pakistani] then there’s this preconceived idea of who I am,” says Dehwar. “I felt like if I was honest about who I was, then I would be considered an outcast.”
“I just didn’t want to even put myself through that.”
Hogarth says culture isn’t static, but dynamic. She says cultural groups aren’t necessarily made up of individuals that are all the same. Rather, each individual is unique, with their own values, beliefs and even upbringings. Therefore, each individual has their own level of cultural participation.
As previously reported by The Eyeopener, mixed-raced individuals such as Dehwar can find it hard to identify with cultural associations, given that the groups don’t reflect the entirety of their cultural experience. Even if a mixed race alliance was formed it would be difficult to find a common ground with differing ethnic identities.
Since she never felt at home with South Asian associations, Dehwar developed a supportive group of friends who she feels like she can be herself with. While certain PSA events still catch her eye on her Instagram feed, she usually scrolls past them as it ultimately doesn’t feel like something she’s invested in.
“It’s my choice, I can go if I want to. It’s just that I would choose not to because I don’t associate with people from my culture very much anymore.”O
LAS president Fernando Marte-Henriquez wasn’t always involved with the association. In his first year at Ryerson, he didn’t feel like he would fit in the group because he was too “westernized.”
“I knew about [OLAS] in my first year, when I was kind of timid. I didn’t really want to interact because I didn’t feel as if I might have been the right fit.”
Once Marte-Henriquez went to his first OLAS meet and greet, however, he felt really welcomed by the team, which motivated him to join the group.
In Valdes-Carletti’s case, she initially felt a little insecure that she wasn’t able to understand the Spanish references and common sayings that other members of the group would use in conversation. However, as she interacted more with the group, she still felt welcomed and reassured by her peers, who would translate their conversations for her when necessary.
“While I consider myself more or less fluent, I do see that feeling uncomfortable attending Spanish events when you don’t know if somebody’s going to speak Spanish is a real concern,” Marte-Henriquez says.
He and his siblings grew up as second-generation Canadians. For them, Spanish wasn’t spoken frequently within the household. When it comes to Marte-Henriquez’s younger brother, he too was concerned about his Spanish speaking abilities when trying to form a group similar to OLAS at OCAD University. Marte-Henriquez has since been working with him to reinforce that knowing fluent Spanish isn’t a requirement to be a part of a group like OLAS.
Marte-Henriquez and his brother aren’t alone in feeling out of touch with their native tongue. According to the 2016 census, more than one‑third of children with an immigrant background speak only English or French at home, compared with less than 10% of their parents.
Hogarth says students can be deterred from joining a cultural association solely based on their feeling of not being involved enough with that community’s practices. In these cases, some would use the term “whitewashed,” implying that someone lacks culture or has assimilated into Western culture, forgetting their cultural roots.
“I would say: whose narrative is that?” Hogarth says. She explains that calling someone “too whitewashed or westernized” is an exclusionary technique that needs to be addressed on both an individual and systemic level.
Colleen James is an equity, diversity and inclusion advocate and professor at Conestoga College’s School of Business. Over email, she said cultural communities, especially student groups, are set up for people to meet, unite and learn and should prioritize being inclusive and educating each other. James states that these associations should “create a safe space” that helps people share their issues and experiences within the culture.
Within OLAS, Marte-Henriquez continues to try and ensure everyone feels like they belong by getting them involved with educational and community building events like Spanish hour, where they teach students Spanish every Thursday from 4-5.
The group also hosts online dance lessons, as well as a Discord server dedicated to connecting people and sharing their interests in music and other activities. “We host most of our events in English, just to create that approachable environment,” says Marte-Henriquez.T
hough Valdes-Carletti was only able to join OLAS in her final semester, after trying to find a space to relate to other Latinx students for most of her youth, the experience of attending these events and making connections helped her become more in tune with her culture. It was part of the reason she was so excited to visit her parent’s home country for the first time in 2019.
The streets of El Salvador still felt like home to Valdes-Carletti, despite not knowing the native language fluently. What’s more, being absorbed into the culture allowed Valdes-Carletti to practice her Spanish with a little more ease than she experienced in Canada. She enjoyed her time with her grandparents, who she had only seen a handful of times in her childhood. At 23 years old, the sun’s intense rays allowed her to be sunburnt for the first time, while enjoying a juicy mango on a stick with her family. To her, the experience was lovely.
Valdes-Carletti now works in Saskatoon as a video journalist for CTV News. Though the city is predominantly white, Valdes-Carletti hopes to use this opportunity to stay in touch with her Hispanic roots. She’s going to actively embrace her love for Spanish music and she keeps up with the community by following Instagram accounts that specialize in virtual Spanish cooking classes that her cousin sends to her. One day, she hopes to return to Toronto and finally take up Spanish classes.
“I think for me, it’s just doing what I can to kind of keep [that connection] intact and keep it going.”
*Source’s name has been changed for privacy and safety.