In The Community
It’s tricky navigating this world as a Latina with the last name Haas.
For some, I am too brown, and for others, I am not brown enough. My Spanish doesn’t roll smoothly off the tongue. My skin golden and illuminated under the sun doesn’t blush and blister, and my hair is both curly and straight — not knowing what to choose.
I am the granddaughter of immigrants and a first-generation college student. I am the dream my grandparents dared to dream as they left their countries and moved to the United States.
Many immigrated in search of opportunity and the chance to build a new foundation that their kids and grandkids could build upon and grow. Immigrants left their respective countries and their homes because they believed the United States was a land of opportunities.
According to a study published by the Pew Research Center, 72% of Latine adults believe that the United States is a safer place to raise children, and 86% say the United States offers more opportunities to be successful than the country of their ancestors.
People leave their homes out of necessity. They run toward the promise of a future. Unfortunately, the American dream promised to many is not afforded to most Latine immigrants.
The U.S. government and U.S. business interests recruited Mexican immigrants for cheap labor, and upon arrival, these immigrants faced racism and segregation. The lands Mexican people lived on were taken from them by two provisions in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which enforced taxation and required proof of land grants in American court.
Puerto Rican people also faced racism and segregation when immigrating pre-Civil Rights Movement. Both were neglected and stripped of everything they had. Puerto Rican people were given statutory citizenship despite being a U.S. commonwealth, which meant their status was established by legislative means rather than by birth.
Voters in Puerto Rico can participate in presidential primaries, but they do not have voting representation in congress or electoral votes in U.S. presidential elections. However, the participation of Puerto Rican people in the Civil Rights Movement had been integral to their political and social lives.
Today, Latine people in the United States have more access to human rights, but they still face racism both socially and institutionally. I know this firsthand as a Latine person.
My last name never stopped people from asking me if I needed a green card to be here, from being followed around a store or harassed by white people at my school and on the street. And when asked for, my last name is always greeted with odd looks and questions. Haas doesn’t necessarily fit my characteristics or demeanor.
My last name comes from my paternal grandfather — an American-born veteran whose last name even he knows little about. So I can’t tell you anything about where the last name Haas comes from or the origins of immigration this part of my family experienced.
What I can tell you about is my paternal grandmother’s story of leaving Mexico and the town she grew up in. I can tell you about the small town in Puerto Rico where my maternal great-grandmother fled and why she left. Their stories resonate with me because they are the ancestral stories that make my identity complex and unique.
Being third-generation, my roots can feel deeply cemented in this land yet also far removed from another. These stories from my family are the anchors that ground me in my Latine heritage and identity.
But I used to define my identity by the way others saw me. My inabilities and disconnections to a culture that has kept me on the outskirts of belonging and othering has shaped how I perceive myself. And as the aforementioned Pew Research Center study found, the complex aspects that define Latine identities continue to change as generations grow in the United States. We see this in the way someone doesn’t need to be fluent in Spanish or have a Spanish surname to be considered Latine in the United States.
Society has told immigrants that if they wanted to assimilate, they would have to abandon parts of their culture. For some immigrants, this went as far as not teaching their kids Spanish or naming them something that was “easy” for Americans to pronounce, essentially white-washing our culture.
To be American has historically meant that you have to lose a significant part of yourself to create a national identity that you’ll never be accepted into anyway.
This Latine identity was created in the 1980s for mobilization purposes.
According to UC Berkeley sociology professor G. Cristina Mora, organizers, pop stars and political leaders used the media to create a common identity around the Spanish language, making it easier to mobilize them.
However, Latine political participation was unequivocally low due to a lack of identity in the United States, which meant the needs of Latine people were being overlooked. A large contributing factor to this was the fact that Latine people were under the white racial category in the U.S. Census. As this common identity and political message became a national conversation, it led to the creation of the Hispanic ethnic category.
But one identity based around the Spanish language alone doesn’t accurately convey the nuances of my identity or that of other Latine people.
America is a nation of immigrants, and we should celebrate the vibrant, unique and diverse cultures that illuminate our communities instead of make them conform to a nation that would not exist without them. I am part of this nation because my family immigrated — both the parts that have challenged my ties to my Latine culture and the ones that gave me my tanned complexion and wavy hair.
It is also true that my last name has never anchored me to ancestral lands and traditions. It has never offered me kindness or privilege, but it has played a role in shaping my identity. It connects me to my father, siblings, cousins and grandparents, and I have learned to lean into that aspect of my family name and hold it as a connection, not an identifier.
Aspects of my identity will continue to grow and shift with the knowledge and wisdom I hope to gain as the years carry on, but my roots will forever exist steady and strong in both the land I descend from and the land that I was born on.
I can no longer afford to cut the roots that keep us connected to our cultures for the sake of fitting in with a country that discriminates against, murders and incarcerates our loved ones. I will no longer conform to a society that was built on the backs of our ancestors or water down my identity and culture.
It is important now more than ever to stand in my Latine identity proudly and unapologetically; to uplift my communities and explore my cultures because they are beautiful and unique.
That is what makes this nation great to me.
Food is much more than the substance that feeds us. It is a living narrative that threads cultures, migrations, exchanges, memories, and emotions. Every bite we take is packed with stories; every smell we perceive evokes memories. I am convinced that when food comes into our lives and into our mouths, it permeates who we are, it stays living in our memory and, without us realizing it, it joins the whole that defines us.
If I had to describe who I am through food, I would present myself as a freshly blended papaya juice, a fruit that I did not feel particularly fond of in my childhood, a tropical fruit, always in season, always at a good price, always available in the refrigerator at home, a recollection of sunny and calm mornings, without grown-up worries. Or maybe I would present myself as the wheat flour arepas that my grandma Rosita used to make in that city, surrounded by mountains that now feel so far away.
These are not simple meals, nor is their choice random. They are fragments of my childhood, often taken for granted, pieces of the puzzle that build me. I spent years with my grandma, learning not only to cook but also to live. When I left her home, in search of a better life thousands of kilometers to the south, those meals that no longer nourished my body, did nourish my memory and my heart.
A few years after leaving Venezuela, I found myself one morning with a glass of freshly blended papaya juice. I did not expect the impact; the rush of emotion was overwhelming, and I found myself carried away by its force. I went back in an instant to my grandma’s home. At that moment, I was sure: certain foods are time machines, and their taste and scent take you away.
But what would happen if we delved deeper into the symbols and stories behind each dish? We could discover the profound family history of a friend who was born in another corner of the world, or that the flavor of a mole carries with it centuries of Mexican history. Even a humble chicken soup can be a reminder of the care and love your mom gave you that time the flu got the better of you.
If our lives were narrated through food, what dishes would we choose to represent us? What stories would those flavors and scents tell?
Migrating is not just leaving, it is also arriving. With that arrival comes the experience of everything anew. For me, food is a fundamental pillar in the experience of being alive. Perhaps this perception is influenced by my moon in Taurus – in astrology, this signifies a deep appreciation for the pleasures and comforts of life, like good food. Or, it could simply be because I heard countless times while growing up that 'it's cheaper to clothe me than to feed me.
The truth is that when you emigrate, the doors are opened to new foods and stories that sneak in and begin to become part of you. They come to stay, they settle in, and the idea of the home you once had is nourished and grows with new flavors, new fruits, and new narratives.
It is almost miraculous to be sitting in front of a dish that was once merged into the shaping of my identity. Whether it's a dish prepared by a loved one, by myself, or by a new person in the land I am beginning to call home, eating that dish goes far beyond mere survival; it is an act that threads the past with the present, a constant dialogue between who I was and who I am at this exact moment.
There wasn’t a day in my life that I did not see mujeres being industrious, enterprising, savvy, and hard-working. The story of my life is lined up with mujeres who fit this description, and I really don’t think that I am an exception. Latinas, especially those that grew up in Latin America, can probably tell stories like mine below:
I was probably 6 years old, and it was Friday night. I spent the afternoon at my mom’s jazzercise and aerobics business, called “Relax.” It was collocated with my father’s taekwondo school, but that day it was all music and ladies in tights. From there, I went with my grandfather to visit his mother—my great grandmother—who lived on another side of town. I got to ride his pickup truck on the back, laying on the wagon, staring at the stars. Growing up in Santo Domingo, I was always close to the ocean. This was one of those days when I could smell the salt as we drove to Abuela Macha’s house.
Macha was not home. She was at “la tienda.” She owned a small store that seemed like a wax museum or eclectic fashion storage. But she made a living from it, sewing and doing alterations for her clients. We visited her there, and I played with all the things she let me touch: the broom and a chair.
Saturday, my mom, Jasmin, had left me with her mother, Abuela Vicky, while she ran some errands. I got really curious about a ceramic elephant that was drying in the sun. My grandmother had a side business making ceramics, which was more profitable than her other side business selling clothes she bought in Puerto Rico. The ceramic elephant was boring, and I decided to enhance it by poking dots with a stick. Dalmatian Elephant didn’t seem to be what the client wanted. Needless to say, I got in trouble and learned that day that the client is always right.
Sunday was my dad’s turn to do family time. The tradition was going to Abuela Ura’s house where meat was scarce, so you had to watch your plate or else. After the meal, we played bingo, and we bet actual money. It was the best. Sundays usually ended with Abuela Ura handing my dad a stack of taekwondo uniforms that she and her mom, Abuela Morena, had made that week. We sold their uniforms at our school.
Looking back, I realize that I am the product of my surroundings. These women were tenacious and committed. They started things, they provided for their families in courageous and innovative ways. They were resourceful and inventive. Everything turned into a dollar, and you turned a dollar into two. And they did it with grace and love and feminine flair, from home.
It is obvious to me why Latin American immigrant women are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs in the United States. And it makes sense to me that they are also decision-makers at home, collectively managing $1 trillion today, and rising.
Fast forward, and you will find me launching my first venture in 1998, writing software to track the performance of aircraft engines. I’ve also been the Mary Kay lady, a food vendor at a local street festival, and a speaker at MIT Media Lab (more than once). My love for entrepreneurship is a love of my culture, an ode to my Abuelas and my mom, a rite of passage for my daughters. Nothing about owning a business is disconnected or meaningless–all of it is a part of me.
As I work with the organization Black & Brown Founders to develop a curriculum and coach other entrepreneurs, I am reminded of the legacy we build with every launch. We make history, every day. Another little girl is watching, and writing stories where the protagonists look like her. As a matter of fact, they are her. Every time I pay for one of my daughter’s college applications, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that my business allowed me to do that–and she knows it. They are watching me now. They are writing their own stories.
Latinas and entrepreneurship are synonyms. High-five Abuelas!
Francesca Escoto is Director of Education and co-creator of the Bootstrapping Bootcamp at Black & Brown Founders. She is also the Founder & CEO of Brava Management Consulting, a boutique firm focused on coaching, operations optimization, and software development. She can be found onTwitter (@waofrancesca).