Shades of Heritage

MU students and staff share their experiences with their Hispanic cultural identity
Thursday, December 11, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:26 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The students who comprise the Latino population at MU are as colorful as the countries they come from. Some are from tropical Puerto Rico, others from spicy South America. Many are several generations removed from their Latino country of origin. With this mixture come many shades of identification with their respective cultures. From Spanish fluency to Christmas tamales, here are a few of the ways Hispanic MU students show their cultural identity.

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  • Age: 18
  • Freshman, computer science major
  • Birthplace: Mendoza, Argentina, close to the western border of the country

  • Hometown: Springfield, Mo., by way of Argentina; Davis, Calif.; and Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Hispanic background: Argentinean, and a legal resident of the United States

  • Generation: First -- he and his family moved to the United States in the fall of 1993
  • Audio: Hear Gonzalo's comments on Hispanic family traditions

Gonzalo Saenz

Having been in the United States for 10 years, Gonzalo Saenz considers himself to have become pretty Americanized. “It just rubs off on you when it’s everywhere around you,” he says. “There’s not really much you can do to stop it.”

His family tries to stick to its Argentinean roots. The Hispanic traditions of large family gatherings and meals are still observed, and Spanish is still spoken in the household. Plans to return to Argentina, however, are not in the works.

“Economically, it’s not a very good situation right now, and also politically,” he says. “And having our green cards and everything, we’ll just stay here.”



  • Age: 44
  • Doctoral candidate in the Romance Languages department in Spanish Literature

    and Languages, which she plans to finish in May 2004

  • Birthplace: Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay
  • Hometown: Montevideo, Uruguay
  • Hispanic background: Afro-Uruguayan
  • Generation: First -- she is here on a student visa
  • Involvement: Latin American Student Association
  • Audio: Cristina talks about being a Latina woman.

Cristina Rodriguez-Cabral

Life is very stressful here,” says Cristina Rodriguez-Cabral with a smile. She is the author of 11 published books of poetry, including “Desde mi trinchera,” or “From my battle trench,” which is dedicated to her husband who died while fighting in the war in Angola. She left the laid-back atmosphere of her home country of Uruguay, where, as she fondly recalls, people take regular naps and long beach vacations, to come to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. Then she was offered a position as a teacher’s assistant in the Romance Languages department at MU while she was working toward a goal to be the first Afro-Uruguayan to receive a doctoral degree.

Rodriguez-Cabral says she faces double the amount of discrimination for having the heritage of two minorities. Students sometimes cannot believe that she is a black woman who is of Hispanic origin. “People look at me suspiciously,” she says. “Everybody assumes that I am American.”

As of now, Rodriguez-Cabral has no permanent intentions of staying in the United States after graduation because she and her daughter, Nzinga, are still citizens of Uruguay. Job opportunities, though, may keep her in the United States, at least for a while. “I’m open,” she says.



  • Age: 21
  • Senior, sociology major
  • Birthplace: West Covina, Calif.
  • Hometown: Bartlesville, Okla.
  • Hispanic background: Mexican-American
  • Generation: Second -- Riley’s mother immigrated to the United States from Mexico
  • Involvement: Hispanic American Leadership Organization
  • Audio: Natasha's thoughts on the Hispanic population at MU.

Natasha Riley

Although only half of her family is Mexican, Natasha Riley grew up in close contact with the Hispanic side, which is traditional and Catholic.

“We do the piñata at birthdays. We eat tamales at Christmas,” Riley says. “We’re fairly hard-core Mexican.”

She finds the identification process with her Hispanic heritage much more defined than that of her father’s side of the family. Her father’s family heritage is Irish, which she says is easily confused with other European ethnicities. “When someone asks me, I always say I’m Mexican-American or I’m Chicano,” she says. “I never say I’m Irish… not that I don’t want to, but it melts in with any other Anglo ethnicities.”



  • Age: 29
  • Senior, industrial engineering major
  • Birthplace: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, a college town much like Columbia
  • Hometown: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
  • Hispanic background: Puerto Rican
  • Generation: First, and she’d be reluctant to consider herself a permanent resident of the mainland United States
  • Audio: Hear Annette's thoughts on Puerto Rican culture.

Annette Desarden-Carrero

Annette Desarden-Carrero got her degree in journalism years ago and had worked as a journalist until four years ago, when her attitude toward the profession soured. It was then that she decided to change her path completely and apply to Missouri’s School of Engineering, where she started back at square one with another undergraduate degree. “People say, ‘By now you should be an engineer,’ ” she says. “But I don’t regret my path at all.”

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she is proud of her heritage but thinks she may not return after graduation. Her family would love for her to live close to home, but Desarden-Carrero says that she will go wherever the job market takes her. “Life is like a rollercoaster — it has ups and downs,” she says. “I believe in destiny. I believe in life.”



  • Age: 20
  • Junior, advertising major
  • Birthplace: Detroit, Mich.
  • Hometown: Rochester, Mich., a suburb of Detroit
  • Hispanic background: Mexican-American
  • Generation: Fourth -- she comes from a family who skirted the border for

    years before permanently settling in southern Texas

  • Involvement: President of HALO, and a member of Sigma Lambda Gamma, the multicultural, Latina-based sorority at MU
  • Audio: Becca on getting in touch with her Latino side.

Becca Villarreal

Exposure to Mexican food and cultures at a young age wasn’t quite enough for Becca Villarreal to immediately identify with her Hispanic roots growing up in white suburbia. That didn’t come until she attended a business institute before her senior year of high school, where she was shown the importance of a multicultural experience.

“It was after that that I definitely had a lot stronger Hispanic voice, and that definitely influenced the activities I chose,” she says.

Following her cultural awakening, Villarreal explored her Hispanic side with her father and other family members. She’s been taking Spanish classes and conversing with bilingual family members in order to become more fluent. Once at MU, she jumped headfirst into the Hispanic American Leadership Organization’s executive board with the intention to increase Hispanic community involvement.

Villarreal admits that there are some things that the Anglo side of her family, particularly her mother, doesn’t understand now that Villarreal’s beginning to identify with her Hispanic roots.

“There aren’t specific tensions,” she says. “But now there are some kinds of differences.”

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