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Embracing Diversity as Hispanic Heritage Month Ends

As National Hispanic Heritage Month comes to an end, OSTP's Chelsea Martinez, a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Fellow, writes about her upbringing and how being the daughter of an electrical engineer and an elementary school teacher of a bilingual classroom helped shape her life.

Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres.

There are a few ways to interpret this Spanish proverb, which I learned from my mother, who was counseling me to choose my school friends carefully. To some, the phrase cautions “you are judged by the company you keep,” so keep company with those who reflect well on you.

I hear it in a more literal way. “Tell me whom you walk with, and I will tell you who you are.”  In other words, the people we spend time with contribute to our character and what we want out of life. With this in mind, it’s not at all surprising that I, the daughter of an electrical engineer and an elementary school teacher of a bilingual classroom, am spending this year working on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering, and math education at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  

Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States began on September 15 and runs through today.  The middle of a month is a strange day to begin a celebration, but less so if you know that beginning that week, eight Latin American countries celebrate their independence, including Costa Rica, where my mother was born, and Mexico, where my father’s parents grew up.  My parents were the first members of their respective families to graduate from college, and the value they placed on education has led me thus far to a lifetime in schools of all kinds.

Going to school has exposed me to different communities and regions of the country, and learning about my classmates is how I understand what it means to be American.  The high school I attended in Cerritos, California, was rated No. 3 in the country by US News & World Report.  In 1988, the year Congress created Hispanic Heritage Month, a study found Cerritos “the most ethnically diverse place in America." Through tutoring and studying with peers, I got to know families whose lives were rich with details that were foreign to me (and mine to them), even as our parents wanted the same success for all of us.

College, teaching, and graduate school, took me to the flat farmland of Ohio, mountainous Virginia, and hot, hilly Central Texas. Though I come from an ethnically diverse town, I never would have had the guts to leave home if I hadn’t been excited about the schools, and more specifically, the science. I didn’t see many people who looked like me in my PhD program in chemistry, but science labs are diverse in other ways, especially including international students on visas who share a desire to work and learn.

Upon visiting America, de Tocqueville remarked that “born often under another sky… himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American … grows accustomed only to change… He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.” Being well prepared by my parents and my teachers allowed me to choose science from among many possible careers; a good education allows us to be flexible and less fearful about the unknown and excited about what we might discover.

Chelsea Martinez is a Congressional Hispanic Caucus STEM Fellow at OSTP