Three women standing next to each other and smiling
Emely Mendez-Ralda, Anita Nadal and Jacqueline Romero at ¡Virginia Fiesta! at the Science Museum of Virginia. (Contributed photo)

Students share their experiences at Hispanic Heritage Month community festival

Jacqueline Romero and Emely Mendez-Ralda take part in ¡Virginia Fiesta! at the Science Museum of Virginia.

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Two Virginia Commonwealth University students shared their stories at this past weekend’s ¡Virginia Fiesta! event at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Held on Oct. 15, the festival represented the first time the Science Museum dedicated an entire day to Latinx people in Virginia. The event, which came on the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month, featured everything from local chefs and artists to singers and dancers.

Jacqueline Romero and Emely Mendez-Ralda also were there to share their stories, manning a table at the event with Anita Nadal, assistant professor in the VCU School of World Studies and faculty fellow for community engagement in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Romero, who will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in political science and foreign language, wanted to participate in the festival because it was an opportunity for her to inspire others, she said.

“This was a chance I hadn’t had before. Being able to be a part of the festival also made me feel like I'm getting the chance to be heard and share my passions that come from my roots and culture,” she said.

When Nadal heard the Science Museum of Virginia was partnering with Radio Power 1380 AM to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, she felt it was important that VCU students be represented.

“As a community-engaged professor, I am always thinking of ways to actively engage my students in the community,” Nadal said. “Amy Rector, director of the School of World Studies, thought it would be a great opportunity for faculty and students to be a part of the community during Hispanic Heritage Month.”

Romero, a first-generation U.S. citizen who is Salvadorian and Nicaraguan, spoke at the event about her experiences related to stereotyping within the Latinx community and how she coped.

“My mom has been a house cleaner since I was in first grade. Many times in middle school, kids would make jokes to inflict shame about my mom’s job saying things like ‘We need your mom to come clean these dishes’ or ‘Can she be my Mexican maid?’ even though I had never identified myself as Mexican,” she said. “It was easy for them to make jokes about cleaning while trying to break me down. When it came to my dad’s profession as a stonemason at the Capitol, their faces would be blank … almost like it was too hard to believe.”

Romero sees her parents’ strong work ethic as a loving gesture that has helped her accomplish her goals, including finishing her bachelor’s degree in three years.

“I have faced hardships and discrimination due to my identity but even then, I am continuously using all the tools and resources I have to overcome it and motivate others to have the strength to do the same,” she said.

Two women standing next to each other for a selfie
Jacqueline Romero and Emely Mendez-Ralda hoped to encourage others through their participation in the ¡Virginia Fiesta! event. (Contributed photo)

She believes her story is one that people can relate to in their lives.

“It’s the idea that life is all about taking risks,” she said. “Telling my story has benefited me because it has allowed me to reflect and look back at all my parents have been able to give me and how grateful/blessed I am at the end of the day.”

Mendez-Ralda, a junior at VCU who is a foreign language major with a concentration in Spanish, hopes her story inspired the people she spoke with at the festival, especially if they were Latinx first-generation students.

“Like any other Latinx first-generation student, I have gone through the struggles of not knowing what career path I wanted as I started my college career,” she said, noting that she also struggled with navigating her way through the college admission process. “There was a time when I felt like I was alone and that only I went through these struggles. I felt helpless and useless because I was unaware of how to get by while everyone else had their parents and siblings to help them.”

Her message to those she talked with was a simple but important one to share. “Even at times when you feel that there is no one there to help you, I can assure you that there is and that it is OK to ask for help,” she said. “Reach out to your advisers, reach out to the admissions office, reach out to whoever you feel will guide you into the right direction and if they can't help you, they will lead you to the people that can guide you.”

Romero’s message was also one of encouragement.

“Get active in your communities and give back. It starts with the youth,” she said. “As a kid, seeing others as motivational speakers or role models motivated me to do the same when I got older. When you’re able to touch the life of one person or inspire them, they will want to continue to do the same and together with time we can make the world a better place.”