“According to what someone told me: They say the moon is always one, By the sea or by the mountains. So I yell to the villain, I would be Boricua Even if I was born on the moon.”
As a Puerto Rican, I carry Puerto Rico with me everywhere I go. Puerto Rico is with me in my language, in my thoughts, and in my heart. Because regardless of where I am, I will always be “boricua”. That’s the sentiment I feel, unites us Latin Americans the most, that love for our heritage.
Our heritage shapes our ways of being and feeling. It’s the reason we connect despite our many differences, and why fundamentally we are all brothers and sisters. Precisely because it unites us in that way, we must celebrate it. This is why creating exposure and coming together as a community for events such as Latinx Heritage Month is so important. La Casa Hispanica is a community at Penn that understands and is dedicated to creating that space for students to celebrate heritage. La Casa Hispanica is part of the modern languages program in Gregory College House, designed to create a safe space for students to practice their language skills while learning about different cultures and involving themselves in a welcoming community. Melissa Echeverry, the Graduate Resident Advisor for La Casa Hispanica, sums it up best with, “My goals are to have La Casa Hispanica be a place where people are practicing Spanish but that they can also feel like they can be their authentic selves and bring that into Spanish conversation.”.
Melissa is of Mexican and Colombian roots, something she displays proudly as part of her identity. Coming from a Mexican and Colombian background meant that she had to overcome many obstacles throughout her life, such as learning the English language and helping her parents navigate many aspects of daily life, especially translating important documents. Additionally, she faced a challenge most minorities face, a lack of belonging. Melissa often felt like she was not fully accepted in undergraduate communities, “neither here, nor there”. That challenge inspired her to create a safe space to experience “Latinidad”. To be her authentic self, essentially, she created the community in La Casa Hispanica that she wished she had as an undergrad.
Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Melissa about her life, culture, and vision for Casa Hispana.
What’s your name?
- My full name is Melissa Araceli Echeverry
Where are you from?
- I am from Los Angeles, but I was born from immigrant parents from Mexico and Colombia.
What are you studying?
- I’m pursuing my master’s degree in Social Work
What are your goals for the future?
- This has always been a difficult question for me. I always do what I am passionate about. I have been very fortunate that my family has supported me and that I’ve been able to travel and get to know many different cultures and return to school after so many years. I think my goal for the future is to work in Latin American communities. Right now, I’m studying health care systems because it is so difficult for Latin American communities with the various circumstances such as documentation, health insurance, and even language barriers. My goal is to ultimately help Latin communities navigate the healthcare system.
Tell us a little about your upbringing. What is your connection to the Latin American community?
- I grew up in Valle de San Fernando with my parents. I felt like I grew up very quickly because I had to learn how to read documents, become a translator for my parents, and understand what people were saying, or at least pretend that I did. I was the first, not only to go to school, but to leave my home to study. I was actually 17 when I left my home to go to college, which, in retrospect, I think is crazy, but it is achievable. I got a degree in Political Science and stayed an extra semester to study abroad at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires. I chose a program that allowed me to study and work as a volunteer because I was interested in joining the Peace Corps, but wasn’t sure if that was something that I would enjoy doing. Thus, I decided to join this program in order to explore different cultures whilst also volunteering and I loved it. I got to experience what life is like outside the U.S and how political and sociological systems differ. What stood out for me was learning from different perspectives. That’s why I enjoyed my time traveling, because I really enjoyed learning through all the different perspectives, and it opened the doors to understanding how different cultures work
La Casa Hispanica and Latinx Heritage Month
What is La Casa Hispanica?
- La Casa Hispanica is a Modern Language House, housed at Gregory College House, in which we create an opportunity for students to just be in community and practice Spanish.
Who can be a part of La Casa Hispanica?
- Anyone is welcome to join, regardless of your Spanish-speaking level. We really want to create a safe space for you to not only practice Spanish but also learn about all the different cultures of all the places that speak Spanish. This is because I often feel like we present Hispanic culture from one point of view, as if it is the only way in which Hispanic cultures look like, and that’s not true. Hispanic culture looks very different across different cultures and, even within a specific culture, it can look very different. That’s something I wanted to make sure we talked about in La Casa Hispanica. Additionally, we are going to practice our Spanish and learn about different cultures through activities such as cooking, games, and conversations because it is an opportunity to build community and make students feel more comfortable. The real purpose of La Casa Hispanica is to build community, learn about cultures in creative ways that also allow you to learn a little more about yourself as you improve your language.
What is your role in La Casa Hispanica, and why did you choose this role?
- Technically, I am a teaching fellow, and I coordinate La Casa Hispanica. I chose this role because when I was an undergrad I didn’t really find my community. As a 17-year-old first-generation college student who also wasn’t living in the dorms because I wasn’t aware that the housing application was separate from the college application, there was so much I didn’t know and it was especially hard to find a place where I fit in. I also felt that some spaces didn’t accept me as I was. I felt like I wasn’t part of “ni de aqui, ni de alla” — neither here nor there. Thus, when Gwen (Gregory House Director) approached me with the opportunity to be as creative as I wanted to be and to create that space, I was thrilled. I finally created the space that I wish I would’ve had as an undergrad, and I am able to experience my “Latinidad” in the way I want to and that was genuine to me. I just want to continue encouraging people to be their authentic self.
What are your goals with La Casa Hispanica?
- My goals are to have La Casa Hispanica be a place where people are practicing Spanish, but that they can also feel like they can be their authentic selves and bring that into Spanish conversation.
What is La Casa Hispanica doing to celebrate Latinx Heritage Month?
- Casa Hispana is going to be doing a couple of things. We hosted a bring your own mug event on Tuesday September 20th, because our class is on Tuesday and I wanted to make sure all our members could participate. They can learn more about mes de latinidad while making something to share with Gregory as a whole. Another thing is that Philadelphia is really great at having free events to celebrate our culture. Specifically, for “Mes de Latinidad”, they have an entire website with links and it spans a lot of different cultures across the city. We can’t go to all of them due to time constraints, but I highlighted certain events on the weekend that we can all go to. Really, this is about bringing exposure to the Latino community in Philadelphia. It’s about how we can celebrate Latinx Heritage month, not just here at Penn, but with the wider community, with events like the Mexican Independence Day Parade, the Puerto Rican Day Parade, etc. This is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who wants to join because it is all free.
Can you tell us about other events that La Casa Hispanica will hold, that the Penn community might be interested in?
- We are trying to do smaller events to see how it goes, and later we want to expand and do events for the wider Penn community. For now, it is just a little too early.
Any advice for the Latin American community at Penn?
- I think at Penn there are a lot of opportunities to be part of a community and I believe it’s very important to be part of a community where you are seen. As a minority, you can often feel like you don’t belong and college is difficult both academically and emotionally, so I think it’s important that we be intentional in looking out for each other. Join spaces where you can be yourself and where you can connect with others. Be intentional in creating a community where you feel seen.
We are going to play a short game of hot takes, but a Latin American version! Choose one of the two possible options:
Arepas (Latin American food) or Empanadas (similar to Latin American food)?
- I have to go with Arepas Colombianas, but I want to make it clear that it is Arepas with queso.
Daddy Yankee or Bad Bunny?
- That is such a hard question because if you asked me two months ago, I would’ve said Daddy Yankee hands down. However, Bad Bunny’s last album was so good, because it was able to incorporate so many different styles. Therefore, just because of that last album I have to go with Bad Bunny.
Arroz (rice) or Frijoles (beans)?
- When I did Peace Corp. in Senegal, I ate rice every single day, so for the longest time I couldn’t eat rice. Since then, it’s been 5 years, and rice is so diverse, you can do it in so many different ways that I have to go with rice.
Que? (What?) or Mande? (What? 2.0)
- I have to go with Mande. Because if I ever said que” in front of my mom she would kill me. But when I’m with my friends, I use que.
Tu (you) or Usted (you 2.0)?
- I have to use Usted with every person I don’t know, because my family would also kill me if I said that.
Loteria (Mexican bingo) or Domino (dominoes)?
- You make it so hard for me because I have a Mexican mom and a Colombian dad, so we have played both games in our home. I’m going to say dominoes because I loved playing it and my parents would always make me laugh because they would just cheat the game.
Messi or Ronaldo?
- Historically, I have been a fan of Ronaldo. I remember watching the TV and asking myself who is this young guy who is good looking and also really good? He also happened to be playing for Manchester United alongside Carlos Tevez, who is my favorite player of all time. So, I have to go for Ronaldo.
As a member of the La Casa Hispanica community, I can say that Melissa has excelled in creating a space where everyone is welcome. La Casa Hispanica is refreshing. It gives us a break and allows us to connect, be ourselves, and have fun. As a Puerto Rican, I’m always yearning for an opportunity to express myself and my “Latinidad”, in La Casa Hispanica I get to do so. Additionally, I have learned a lot about other Latin American countries and their experiences through creative outlets, such as games, food, and music. Therefore, I encourage everyone to join La Casa Hispanica. Join us to explore different cultures and improve your Spanish, but most importantly, join La Casa Hispanica if you’re looking for a place where you can be yourself in a community that supports you.