"There is a story to my heritage": Hispanic Americans reflect on immigration, culture, and identity

Hispanic Americans on immigration & identity

Each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

The month has a long history: it began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson, and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to a month-long holiday that runs between September 15 and October 15 each year. September 15 is a significant date – it marks the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

To commemorate the month, "CBS This Morning" spoke with five Hispanic Americans about the adversity they've faced and why they're so proud of their heritage.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend Gun Violence Forum  In Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks during the 2020 Gun Safety Forum Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Julián Castro on the American Dream: "We struggled through that adversity and made it through"

2020 Democratic candidate Julián Castro has an impressive political resume: he served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama, and is the current mayor of San Antonio, Texas. But his journey through the political ranks wasn't easy.

"I grew up in a single parent household, my mom was raising my brother and me and taking care of her mom, my grandmother," Castro said. "We grew up in neighborhoods that were still dealing with the legacy of segregation and in schools, they were underfunded."

 "My brother and I became the first in our family to go to graduate school — we went to law school — and then to become professionals and then public servants," he added. "So we struggled through that adversity but made it through, and that's part of reaching the American Dream."  

Denise Bidot CBS News

Denise Bidot on staying true to her roots: "Everything about me is because of that"

Denise Bidot, a plus-sized model in New York City, resists being boxed in by others' perceptions of her culture.

"I think it's so funny, though, when people try to put in boxes what type of Latina you are," she said. "I'm like, 'Technically, I'm Latinx, I'm also a Hispanic lady, Latina, Puerto Ricania, ya tu sabes de todo un poquito.'"

But she credits her heritage for shaping "everything about me."

"As a half Puerto Rican girl who grew up in Miami, I feel like I'm so thankful that my mom made me go to Puerto Rico every single summer and spend time with my family and really dive into my roots and who I am, and everything about me is because of that," she said. "The music, my food, my passion, how I express myself, the love and kindness that I think I give to the world that really is such a part of the essence of the Latino culture."  

Juanita Velez Juanita Velez

Juanita Velez on coming to the U.S. to escape violence: "It's definitely an opportunity and a blessing"

Atlanta-based Juanita Velez and her family came to America amid drug violence in Colombia. "I was held at gunpoint at a very young age and I think that was just one of many incidents," she said. "There was a bomb that went off right next to my parents when I was 8 months old. So all of that terrorizing fear really led my parents to come to this country."

"It's definitely an opportunity and a blessing and a privilege to be part of the United States of America," added Velez, who works as an international social media manager for Delta Air Lines. "I can't wait for my Mexican Colombian kids to one day be able to hear their stories of their father and their mother and how our stories as immigrants came about … That's the beauty of diversity and that's what makes me so proud to be a Latina."

Velez is also the founder and president of Hispanic Young Professionals & Entrepreneurs. "Being Latina means that there is a story to my heritage," she said. "It means that there is a big history behind who I am, behind who my family is. The reason why we are where we are and who we are in this country is connected to being a Latina."

Amanda Pericles Amanda Pericles

Amanda Pericles on finding her identity: "Everyone has their own story"

Amanda Pericles, a graduate student from Rhode Island, is the founder of the Instagram account @afrolatinas, which highlights black women of Latin American descent.

"Everyone has their own story of what it means to be a black Latina, and, like, there's the obvious definition that people might use, like a black person of Latin American descent, but for me it's … me being someone who came from a two-parent household raised going to school … in addition to connecting very much so with the black American community, as well as the Caribbean community, as well as the African community and having all of those American aspects with me," Pericles said.

"I just think it's an amazing thing that I can say I have all these influences that make up who I am," she added, "and yet, I can still claim or still be proud of being a black Latina and, like, no one can take that away from me."

Yahriel Salinas Yahriel Salinas

Yahriel Salinas on immigrants' "lethal" journey to make it to the U.S.

Yahriel Salinas, a freshman at Iowa State University, emphasized the sacrifice many immigrants make for a chance at a better future.

"People in my community are willing to make the lethal and the deadly and the dangerous journey to come here to the U.S. Just as my parents did to give opportunities for their children and for their families," he said. "My dad is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, my mom is an undocumented immigrant who fled war in El Salvador."

"I heard a lot of things about my parents, saying that 'what they did was wrong,' he added. "And in that way, they're invalidating my whole being — because they came here for me."