October 12, 2023

Three Ways to Make Every Month Hispanic Heritage Month

Employee panelists at an Exact Sciences discussion share ideas for finding workplace belonging — and advice for companies that value inclusion. 

Illustration of people offering advice

Nearly one in five people in the United States claims Hispanic heritage.

Even with so many different experiences and backgrounds among those 63 million-plus people, strong threads connect them. The U.S. celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15-Oct. 15 to honor the intersecting cultures and histories of Americans with roots in Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. 

Exact Sciences fosters a culture where all employees can develop personally and professionally with a sense of respect and belonging. To mark National Hispanic Heritage Month, the company hosted a panel of Hispanic employees to discuss how their heritage has impacted their careers.

The panelists’ insights show how employers — and those they employ — can create environments where everyone is welcome, all year round.

Welcome everyone as they are

Ana Hooker, senior vice president and chief laboratory officer

We all have barriers of some sort — not just Hispanic people, but also white people, Black people, and others. While a Latino may be a minority person in terms of the workplace, Latinos make up 19% of the U.S. population. That is a huge number, which means that as we build companies and we build opportunities, a big percentage of the workforce is going to be of Latino origin. For Latinos in particular, our barriers have political, geographical and linguistic connotations.

So having these conversations is important. How do we overcome these barriers? At Exact Sciences, my colleagues have always been very welcoming and very accepting of my accent or my occasional odd word choice in meetings. But in other parts of my history, people have thought I’m an angry Latina because I speak with my hands a lot. We’re passionate. We might intonate things a certain way because that’s how they are in our first language. A lot of us have tried to adopt the style of our white colleagues so people hear our message instead of focusing on our accent or how we look.

I got to a point in my life that I’m like, this is who I am. I live in this country, and I contribute to society. If someone doesn’t like me, that’s their problem. I embrace being Latina. I love my heritage. I’m not going to change my accent — I’m proud of it — and that has helped me a lot.

Cristina Follen, program manager, organizational development

At times in my career, I’ve also dealt with the stereotype that I’m aggressive or that I’m intimidating. I agree that this is something that many Hispanic people deal with and especially Hispanic women. At first when I would hear this, I would try to change the way that I was delivering my messages, or I would go as far as to just not say anything at all. 

I felt really stifled in those moments. I couldn’t share my thoughts or my opinions because I was scared that I’d be labeled as a problem starter. It took a lot of time and introspection, but I realized that my messaging didn’t lack professionalism. It wasn’t rude. It was oftentimes said with confidence, and it oftentimes was not the popular opinion, but it was rooted in truth. And so when I realized all of that, I got brave, and I said what needed to be said with confidence, with professionalism.

Joel Centeno, vice president, global regulatory affairs

Once at a previous company, I was not included in a meeting because the person organizing the meeting thought my accent was a problem. It was a critical meeting where decisions were going to be made, and I had input about those decisions. But I wasn’t invited because of one person’s concern that people may not understand me. I was shocked because it was the first time I’d heard that. I found myself asking other leaders at the organization if they could understand me when I speak. 

The meeting went on without me. It hurt. That was one of the first times I experienced that kind of situation. I stayed true to myself and to my roots, to everything that I’ve gone through in my life as an immigrant to this country. I allowed myself some time to be sad, but then the next day I went right back at it. As Hispanics, we stay true to ourselves, and we keep fighting.

Later I found out that the meeting didn’t finish because information that I had was critical in making the decision. So I was invited to the next meeting. I didn’t overthink my accent or let that one person shake my confidence. 

CRISTINA: There’s no need to assimilate. We’re all super unique, multifaceted people who have so many beautiful things to bring to the table. To anyone, I would say be authentically, unapologetically you and know that you don’t need to conform in order to fit in.

Address issues head-on

JOEL: When you have difficulties with someone at work, you always want to believe that the reason they’re being difficult is because of a work issue or just because the person is difficult in general. But you never know if this person may have prejudices, whether intentional or unintentional. 

I can recall a time at a previous job where someone framed a disagreement as resulting from differences in culture. It caught my eye because what we were talking about had nothing to do with culture. It appeared to be related to me being Hispanic. I hate confrontation, but microaggressions can’t go unchecked. Even if that wasn’t intended, people have to know that words matter. 

I brought it up with the person, and it ended up being a good conversation. The person had been having a bad day and assured me that what they said had nothing to do with who I was. They ended up thanking me for bringing it up. 

ANA: Yes, sometimes we need to call out ignorance, to educate and to correct microaggressions. Those are things like, “Oh my gosh, you speak English so well!” or “Oh, you are awfully white to be from Puerto Rico. Is that your real heritage?”

You start with assuming people are coming from a positive place but take that moment to educate. I call it out, but I call it out in a polite way — keeping my honor, keeping my personal authenticity and integrity, and doing it from a good place. People usually will self-correct when you mention something and often are upset that they’ve behaved that way. 

It’s easy to react in a defensive way or to go into fight mode because we’re so used to having to fight for everything. It’s harder to take that step back and come in calmly, but if you try it, it does work.

CRISTINA: I agree. You shouldn’t be afraid to call it out. Let people know when they have mis-stepped. Let them know when they have been offensive. Get the conversation started. Open up the lines of communication for learning. My experience is that sometimes it does feel very uncomfortable, but I’ve always been surprised at how productive those conversations have been.

Keep the conversations going

CRISTINA: I have the privilege of leading a variety of talent-focused projects and programs for training and learning. The programs have to be accessible and inclusive across the enterprise and throughout the project lifecycle. I am constantly thinking about who benefits from decisions that are being made and who is burdened by decisions that are being made, and for those individuals who are burdened by the decisions, have they had an opportunity to weigh in? We’re constantly looking at who’s not at the table and forwarding meeting invites to make sure that everybody who needs to be there is actually there.

I challenge myself to ask the tough questions, and that is something that is not always comfortable for me. But year after year, I gain more confidence and comfort in asking the question that maybe is on somebody else’s mind and they’re not asking. When something feels off, I say something. I do my best to just start the conversation.

JOEL: It’s a large pool that brings us all together, right? Input from all different backgrounds helps discussions about how to improve. I find that a lot of issues can be resolved by education. I’m always looking for chances to throw in some coaching or collaboration to tell a little bit about myself so that people understand where I come from. I believe that helps, not only in breaking down barriers and helping people understand who you are, but also sharing an approach that others may take. Others can benefit from you being open about your heritage and your experiences and how that informs you as a leader and leads you to the decisions you formulate.

 It definitely starts at the top. It needs to be a real and visible commitment from leaders, and it has to be actionable. I would recommend making sure that the organization is fostering an appreciation for other cultures and gaining cultural competence. Organizations should do their absolute best to attract a diverse talent pool and beyond that, have a diverse interview panel. They should be supporting mentoring, career advancement and career development opportunities for Hispanic employees. They should be reviewing their policies. They should be auditing their pay and their benefits. 

Once all of that is in place, they should be continually assessing everything, getting feedback from employees, understanding what’s working and what’s not working, and adapting and evolving as needed.

ANA: We’ve come a long way. It used to be that your resume would automatically go to the do-not-open pile if you had a Latino last name. When I was starting in the workplace, that was a real risk, so I adopted my husband’s last name. Today, my Latino last name is in my LinkedIn profile.

The more we turn experiences into positives and use them as a launchpad to create opportunities, the more we will continue to push those boundaries and break down barriers. We can always find commonalities among fellow humans, and when we take the time to find those, we create more positive environments. When you connect with others, people get you for you, and good things grow from there. The more we concentrate on the negative, the worse things become. We need to move away from anger and toward acceptance.

About National Hispanic Heritage Month 

Q: What’s the history?
A: During the Lyndon Johnson administration, the observation began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week. President Ronald Reagan expanded it in 1988 to a 30-day period. 

Q: Who does it include? 
A: National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.   

Q: Why does it run Sept. 15-Oct. 15 instead of a calendar month? 
A: The 30-day period includes several important dates in Latin American countries. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua celebrate their independence on Sept. 15. Mexico, Chile and Belize follow, with their independence days on Sept. 16, Sept. 18 and Sept. 21, respectively.  

Also, Mexico observes Día de la Raza (“Race Day”) on Oct. 12, the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival on the continent. It recognizes the mixed indigenous and European heritage in Mexico.