A tribute to Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s almost that time of the year again!

Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15) is a national holiday in the United States that began as a way to promote the history, contributions, and culture of Hispanic-Americans. Its observation started with a week-long celebration in 1968 and was enacted into law to cover 30 days on August 17, 1988. As a Latinx mathematician myself, this month embodies a time of reflection of all we have achieved and the challenges still ahead of us. Most of all, it allows us to know the stories of fellow Hispanic and Latinx mathematicians that contribute to mathematics through their research, teaching, mentoring, and/or service.

During this month, Lathisms.org  features the profile of a Latinx/Hispanic mathematician daily, providing a biography and information on their research, teaching and service contributions. It was founded by Alexander Díaz-López, Pamela E. Harris, Alicia Prieto-Langarica, and Gabriel Sosa on 2016 and continues to grow each year (read more about its origin here). Last year’s calendar featured early-career mathematicians including graduate students and post-docs. You can visualize the locations,  institutions, and research areas represented by the 2018 honorees’ in this map. (Note: The data displayed is based on the honorees profiles and might have changed since the calendar launch.)

This year’s theme is Mathematics Education  and you can already see a sneak-peak to this year’s calendar on the AMS September Notices communication, “2019 Lathisms: Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences”, which features the profile of four of the honorees: Dr. Hortensia Soto (University of Northern Colorado), Dr. Enrique Treviño (Lake Forest College), Dr. Vilma Mesa (University of Michigan), and Dr. James A. Mendoza Álvarez (University of Texas at Arlington).

It will also continue its podcast series featuring interviews with previous honorees led by Evelyn Lamb. What excites me the most about getting to know this year’s honorees is summarized in Evelyn Lamb’s post “The Dangers of a Single Story in Mathematics”,

“There really is no one kind of person who becomes a mathematician.”

What a wonderful thing that is!  A theme of many of the past honorees’ profiles and interviews has been the importance of mentorship, early access to opportunities, and the big sense of responsibility to they feel towards making mathematics and inclusive environment for all.

“Hispanic Heritage Month means someone recognizes that we contribute to this country. It means that the sacrifice that my parents made for us was not in vain. It means that the work that my elementary teachers did for me is recognized. It is a mechanism to serve as a role model for others—regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, level of education, etc. And, I get to do this in the same manner that it was bestowed upon me: through compassion. It means that as a Hispanic mathematics educator, I am valued.” —Dr. Hortensia Soto

In her blog post “For People Of Color, Succeeding In Academia Is A Political Statement” Melissa Gutierrez Gonzalez, a junior mathematics and philosophy student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, highlights some of impacts women and minority students face in academia.

“I couldn’t make a mistake, because if I did, what would others think of Mexicans? As someone who has always been a part of predominantly white institutional environments, ignoring the fact that I am acting as a representative for people of my ethnic background is incredibly difficult, because for many, I am the first Mexican they meet. For most, I am the first Mexican or Latino/a they meet in the mathematics field.”

These impacts are sometimes aggravated by the current political status of being an undocumented student. In “Requiem for a Dream”, Dr. Adriana Salerno shared the story of an undocumented mathematician and provides resources to support students affected by the changes in Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Representation and acknowledging the full identities of our students, teachers, professors, and colleagues matters. The importance of having faculty that can serve as role models for our students was highlighted in the following student quote from “Cluster Hiring Is Working for Us: Two Early Career Latinas in Math” by Dr. Selenne Bañuelos and Dr. Cynthia Flores,

“The fact that they were both Latina gave me the opportunity to communicate with them about my DACA status, and their support was invaluable to me.”

In the past years, there has been a growing recognition of how mathematics is political. For example, in her 2013 commentary, Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez proposes that,

“By virtue of mathematics being political, all mathematics teaching is political. All mathematics teachers are identity workers, regardless of whether they consider themselves as such or not. They contribute to the identities students construct as well as constantly reproduce what mathematics is and how people might relate to it (or not).”

When we are in the mathematics classroom, whether it is at the K-12 or college level, we are promoting more than mathematical knowledge, we are shaping the identity of  who is and can be successful in mathematics. This extends to other mathematical spaces such as workshops, conferences, and departments. As Dr. Pamela Harris shares in her recent blog post sometimes “It’s the little things” that make you question belonging in the mathematical community.

“It reminds me of little things that I have experienced and which have affected my self identity as a mathematician and made me question my place within the mathematical community. Itʼs the small actions or words or micro aggressions (regardless of intent) that take me out of doing mathematics and bring only selective parts of my identity front and center.”

What it means to be a Hispanic/Latinx mathematician is a multi-layered experience and we will not have a way to condense it all into a single narrative. Conferences such as SACNAS, Blackwell-Tapia Conference, Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference (LatMath) play an important role in bringing together members of the Hispanic/Latinx community. Read some of the reflections on LatMath 2018 by previous participants Emily Alvarez, Dr. Adriana Salerno, and myself. These conferences hope to achieve true diversity in STEM, encourage and showcase the research being conducted by Hispanic and Latina/os at the forefronts of their fields, and to build a community around shared academic interests.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, recognize the unique journey of the members of our community while continuing our work to make mathematics a place where all can belong.

Do you have suggestions of topics you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter! You can find me @MissVRiveraQ.

About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow me on Twitter: @MissVRiveraQ.
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