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The stories of diversity and inclusion during Latin Heritage Month

By Daniel Carrero Ramírez

Every year, communities in Canada recognize October as Latin American Heritage Month. It is a time dedicated to acknowledging and celebrating the different contributions Latin Americans have made to the country and sharing their culture with the world.

At Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), different people, stories and struggles can be found that all represent the Latin community. 

Javier Requejo Barria, a first-year business student at TMU, remembers his experience learning English with one of his friends at the boarding school he attended in St. Catharines, Ont. 

Barria came to Canada when he was 16 with a desire to learn more about the country. He hoped to strengthen his English but didn’t have the best instructors to help him learn the language in high school. 

Despite the natural struggles that come with moving to a new country, Barria said his life in Canada was “like a movie” compared to his life back in Mexico.  

“[Compared] with any [other] Mexican[s], I felt like I was falling behind”

“I had to learn English the rough way,” said Barria in an interview he did with The Eyeopener in Spanish. He said he found a safe, shame-free environment for him to practice his English with his Russian roommate who, was also looking to improve his language skills.

“I didn’t get along with any Latinos at first,” he said. He shared how he avoided speaking Spanish for his first two months in Canada so he could immerse himself in the English language. Still, whenever he spoke to others learning English, he felt he wasn’t progressing as fast as his peers. “[Compared]with any [other] Mexican[s], I felt like I was falling behind,” said Barria.

Eventually, he realized how important it was to speak Spanish every once in a while, especially being far from his home country. All of his friends started asking if he knew the other Latinos in the different dorms in his high school. After some time, he decided to give it a try. 

“I felt relief. I spent time with the Latinos [at my high school] to feel like I was at home. It was necessary,” said Barria. 

“I called my mom and explained the story of how I accidentally stepped on brown snow”

For some, the language barrier is a normal part of dealing with moving to a new country. For others, learning English and being bilingual feels normal. Still, the obstacle of cementing their identity in a new country is a common thread. 

Fernanda Oneil Montes de Oca, a third-year psychology student at TMU, emigrated from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. When coming to Canada, she only packed two pairs of shoes, a black pair of boots—to survive the cold winters—and a pair of old sneakers. Her new journey introduced her to the winter season, which wasn’t a normal experience. “I called my mom and explained the story of how I accidentally stepped on brown snow,” she said.  

 It was a new experience for her as she moved to Toronto to prepare for her post-secondary education at the Toronto Metropolitan University International College. “I am an only child and I was afraid of being alone for the first time in 18 years,” said Montes de Oca in an interview she did with The Eyeopener in Spanish.

In her first year in, Montes de Oca not only missed home, she also missed her sense of community. There wasn’t a large Latin community around her until her second year, when she discovered the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) at TMU.

“OLAS is a part of me and I never thought it was going to mean so much for me. It’s not [just] a student club,” said Montes de Oca. She is now the events director and outreach coordinator for the group.

“It was like going back home. What was that thing that would make me feel closer to Santo Domingo? At the end of the day, talking in English the whole day does saturate me,” she said. 

“OLAS is a part of me and I never thought it was going to mean so much to me”

One of the events OLAS hosts is a meetup where Latin Americans are free to rant in Spanish for hours, giving them a sense of home and relief. However, for some Latin Americans, speaking Spanish is not something they were raised with. Instead, they almost feel foreign in their own skin. 

This feeling is familiar to Alyssa Mackenzie, a recent graduate from the photography program at TMU. Hailing from Belize City, Belize, Mackenzie is ethically mixed. Her mother is Latina, from the Cayo District of Belize. While, her father is white. As a result, she said she possesses recognizable Hispanic features. “The assumption would always be that people would speak Spanish to me, especially moving here [to Canada],” said Mackenzie. 

“Latin America is so mixed, with so many different types of people, it’s hard to define who is Latin and who’s not” 

Mackenzie was raised by her grandmother, who spoke Spanish fluently, but she never picked it up. She said this eventually led to some discomfort with her identity. She wondered if she properly represented the Latin American community.

“It was a hard thing, where I had a bit of identity issues [in that aspect,]” said Mackenzie. “I only really embraced it when I joined TMU.” 

Whether Mackenzie speaks Spanish or not doesn’t determine her identity. Regardless, Mackenzie and anyone else with Latin American roots who do not speak the language, are Latin American. 

“Latin America is so mixed, with so many different types of people, it’s hard to define who is Latin and who’s not,” said Mackenzie. 

It can be hard to categorize a Latin American but it is also very complex to explain all the different tangents of culture, language or traditions. To some, the most effective way to portray an idea like this is through visual arts. 

Rodrigo Barriuso, an instructor for Cinema and Visual Arts in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean course at TMU, is a Cuban-Canadian filmmaker. He explained the importance of cinema as a storytelling device. 

“I am interested in cinema as an artistic manifestation capable of spreading a message to as many people as possible,” said Barriuso in an interview he did with The Eyeopener in Spanish.

This month of celebration opens the door for Latin Americans to show the different branches of Latin American culture. To Barriuso, it carries great meaning. 

“It is important to bring visibility. Obviously, there are many concepts and Latin American realities that deserve to be told,” said Barriuso. His first short film that takes place in Cuba is an example of this. 

“Obviously, there are many concepts and Latin American realities that deserve to be told”

He had included the sound of a rooster in the film because in some places, it is common to find roosters even in big cities, Barriuso said.

“I knew [which] music and sounds I wanted the film to have,” said Barriuso. “Talking to the sound editor in Canada, I had to explain why I wanted the sound of a rooster crowing even though we were in the middle of the city,” said Barriuso. 

As Latin Americans celebrate their stories, challenges between languages, identities and the different ways they express themselves are what shape them today. This month of celebration is not just about acknowledging their heritage; it’s about shedding light on the diverse and compelling narratives that define Latin American contributions to Canadian society.

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