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Honoring Hispanic Heritage: A Conversation with Vanessa Castro

On September 30, 2022, Arete Living interviewed Vanessa Castro, MPH, MPA, Associate Director of the HIV and Health Equity program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, focusing on Black and Latinx communities.

Check out our deep dive below on Hispanic Heritage Month and continued efforts to achieve health equity within all communities.

As a nation, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15. What do you believe is the significance of this celebration, not just in our nation, but the world too?

Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to celebrate the history and culture of U.S. Latinx/Hispanic communities, while also commemorating the overall contributions of Latinx communities to greater American society. It can have deep meaning for first generation US-born individuals from Hispanic and Latinx cultures, to connect to their cultural heritage on a deeper level and learn about Latinx historical figures whose contributions have been instrumental in our culture. On a global scale, the month was initially chosen because it coincides with the independence days of some central American neighbors. While not celebrated in other Latin American countries, it gives folks the chance to learn more about the history and impacts of colonization within many republics.

What is the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latinx?

The term Hispanic was initially used as a unifier of communities from Spain or from Spanish-speaking countries. While it was initially intended to be an inclusive term of Hispanic communities, language became the proxy for geopolitical identity that left out many of the countries where Spanish is not spoken, like Brazil, Guyana, and Haiti. Latino is an alternative word that centers people from Latin America that also includes the Caribbean which allowed for a broader sense of community. There are still some challenges with the term Latino since Spanish is a gendered language with feminine and masculine endings for certain words. It inevitably leaves out communities who do not exist within the gender binary. The term Latinx was developed as a neutral alternative.

Who is someone of Hispanic heritage – either someone famous or someone you know personally – that you look up to and why?

Sylvia Rivera! Sylvia is a Latina transgender woman who was a pioneer in the gay rights movement. Despite being othered, chastised, and ridiculed early in the movement because of her identity, her efforts were pivotal for including trans people of color and other gender-non-conforming identities in the LGBTQ movement. She was a lifelong activist devoted to helping others no matter the barriers she faced. I admire her courage and her resilience to continue to create space for everyone.

How do you celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?

Hispanic Heritage Month offers time for me to focus on learning and putting in more work. Through our Employee Resource Group, we’re connecting to discuss issues and topics pertaining to the Hispanic and Latinx communities. I also celebrate Hispanic Heritage month by making some of my favorite recipes passed down from my relatives, to share with friends and neighbors. I enjoy trying something new and sharing the history behind it. Lastly, I do my best to use this time to support local Latinx authors by purchasing books by them -, whether its

fiction or nonfiction - as long as it’s something that’ll help me to continue learning and growing.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation advocates for equality, focusing efforts on the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, and those who are HIV positive living with HIV. Tell us about your role in the organization and how it impacts Latinx and Black communities.

Two major pillars that drive the work that we are doing in the HIV & Health Equity

program, changing the narrative by centering communities that have been historically at the margins in the HIV response and ending stigma. Black and Latinx communities have been at the margins, and by creating programs using a community-driven solutions we are able to more holistically tackle the factors that exacerbate health inequity within these communities. We are committed to ensuring that communities that are most disproportionately impacted by HIV have the resources and support to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health - involving the care continuum which includes prevention, treatment, and care. Health equity is at the heart of our program as we work towards ensuring our resources are culturally responsive, accessible to those whose English is not their native language and have community input.

What are some needs and possible solutions that you’ve discovered, that can

create more equity in healthcare?

The best solution to create more health equity is to go to the community to better

understand and learn how to align and enhance the patient/client experience to address gaps and challenges. It includes periodic assessments that not only improve the patient client experience but also allows healthcare providers to be better attuned to the ways in which they can successfully overcome challenges and improve overall health outcomes. We are all better served when we confront challenges in the healthcare field when we tackle them together from a variety of perspectives, from the healthcare organizations, social and case workers, and the community at large. By conducting periodic assessments, we keep our finger on the pulse and continue to advance towards a more equitable world for all.

What do you hope people use moments like Hispanic Heritage Month to gain,

learn, and understand about the diversity of Hispanic and Latinx communities?

The theme for Hispanic Heritage Month this year is "Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation.” Let’s take this time to learn and experience the diversity and richness of Latinx communities, and create a more inclusive celebration of all of the unique voices and accomplishments. I think it is important to continue to stay informed about issues that impact the Latinx community and find ways to support and uplift them, through education, reflection, and action by disrupting racism and finding ways to continue to support the Hispanic Latinx community year-round.

Watch highlights of Vanessa’s conversation during Hispanic Heritage Month below and by following Arete Living on social media!

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