International Identities

Multicultural students try to maintain their heritage and culture while in college, but it is not without its challenges.

By Adriana Navarro

About 11 years ago on Día de los Muertos, Dan Aguirre took a risk.

Traditional Mexican and Halloween decorations hung side by side. A table with decorative cloth housed the objects most dear to his family’s past relatives. A soccer ball, bookmarks and cards sat at altars, paying tribute to their respective memories. But it was the sugar skulls that stole Aguirre’s attention. Most of the appeal was in the texture of the all-sugar decoration. The only thing stopping him from trying one was his parents’ warnings, causing Aguirre to think he would die if he tried one. Finally, he took a chance. He grabbed one and bit into it. After all of the excitement and anticipation and the lure of the topical decorations, the tastes of the sugar and the preservatives in that bite toyed with his taste buds.

“It was okay,” Aguirre concluded with a bit of a laugh, recalling the taste and his child-like fear.

Aguirre is now one of the three percent of Hispanic students at Ohio University, according to the most recent enrollment numbers, meaning only about 877 others could share his family’s culture, though that’s not entirely likely. The term “Hispanic” includes, but is not limited to, Mexican heritage. There are also the Spanish, Colombians, Puerto Ricans and the rest of the Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, all with their own heritage and culture.

“It makes me a bit sad because there are a few people that I can relate with culturally,” Aguirre commented in an email. “But if anything, it gives us more of an excuse to find each other and develop relationships so if we ever feel out of place, at least we have each other to lean on.”

“My culture isn't something to make fun/light of or misappropriate and my heart dies more and more every time I see it on campus during Halloween.”Dan Aguirre

Haidar Bin Hamid, an OU student with Arabic and Mexican grandparents, joined the Spanish Club and has found other Spanish speakers to befriend as Aguirre has. Hamid said he has found OU to be “a wonderful and accepting campus.”

Meanwhile, Wenyu Zhang, who goes by Kira, is a part of the four percent of international students at OU. On her second year away from her home in Suzhou City, China, she said she does not feel lonely because there are more Chinese students coming to OU.

But even with a tight-knit group of people to support one another, there are still challenges. For Aguirre, his pet peeve comes around OU’s most enthusiastically celebrated holiday.

“Honestly, I get a bit cynical with educating others about Latino culture, but if I could wish for anything, it would be for Caucasians to just stop f--king wearing sombreros/being Mexican for Halloween,” Aguirre said. “My culture isn't something to make fun/light of or misappropriate and my heart dies more and more every time I see it on campus during Halloween.”

Cultural appropriation – the misuse of a culture – isn’t something new to American culture. For our university, it’s especially relevant around Halloween, as Aguirre said. In 2011, the Students Against Racism in Society (STARS) organization at OU created a nationally recognized “We’re Not a Costume” poster campaign in response to the issue. The posters addressed the serious misrepresentation of the Japanese as Geishas, Mexicans as men with bushy mustaches wearing ponchos and shaking maracas and African Americans as gangsters. However, parody posters were quick to follow.

Before Halloween, though, is the Chinese celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Ohio University hosted the festival this year on Sept. 26 at Baker University Center, complete with mooncakes, but Wenyu said she did wish she had been able to go home for the Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year. The Spring Festival doesn’t take place near a break in the school year, so she spent the holiday on campus.

Food for thought

Zhang commented that along with her family, she misses the food from her home. There are some “Chinese” foods that are of American origin. She was surprised to find a slip of paper when she bit into a cookie at one of the Chinese restaurants, but found the fortune a pleasant surprise.

“Actually, I did not see these in China until I came here,” Zhang said after describing fortune cookies with a bit of a laugh. She also described America’s adaptation on Chinese food as weird, too spicy, and something she said she did not like.

When it came to food for Hamid, he had easy access to a variety of Mexican and Arabic foods – or at least at home.

“We’d always have a vat of hummus in the fridge, and that would disappear fairly quickly between me and my brother,” he said. “And we had tons of guacamole – I love guacamole. I make really good guacamole now.” While his mom taught him how to make dishes mostly from his Latino heritage, he does admit that it is complicated to make food in the dorms, as well as getting all of the ingredients needed.

“I haven’t tried,” he said. “Mainly because I know I can’t.”

Aguirre said that he found a solution to the problem of not having a kitchen by going to someone from the Hispanic and Latino Student Union or a friend’s house.

Of the diversity on campus, Aguirre’s ethnicity group makes up just under a fourth of the 16 percent minority student population, not including the one percent of students who didn’t list their ethnicity, according to the OU Office of Institutional Research. With a campus of 83 percent white students, OU’s minority count hits about 17 percent. Still, these three students share their cultures with the campus with their food, celebrations, and music.

“Latino culture is very warm and vibrant,” Aguirre said. “To me, it feels like it's heavily based on sharing experiences with loved ones and friends, and I feel that makes us unique as a people. Sometimes in college it feels as though people don't like sharing, whether it is American culture or the fact that college kids have little to share. I think there is always a way to find something to give.”