Hispanics and Latinos, the Spanish Language, and the HNC

Hispanics and Latinos, the Spanish Language, and the HNC

Second year MAIS student Austin Frenes shares his own experience as a Hispanic/Latino student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and gives us an insight into student Elizabeth Gonzales, co-director Adam Webb and student Yang Siqi's connections with the Latino community. 

This year I noticed a significant increase in the number of students at the HNC with Hispanic/Latino backgrounds, including myself. I also noticed a significant level of interest among all students in the relationship between China and Latin America, as well as a huge interest in the Spanish language. 

As a Hispanic/Latino person, my interest in China is related to my personal background. My dad’s ancestors come from multiple regions in Mexico, as well as the Chumash people native to southern California. I grew up in a predominantly Latino community with a significant white population. Neighboring towns had significant Chinese populations that were moving into my town as well (interestingly, one translation of my town’s name ‘Chino’ is Chinese in Spanish). Although there was increasing contact between the Chinese and Latino communities, I saw very little interest among my peers and friends in actually learning the Chinese language, so when I left for college I made it one of my goals. 

After college I served in the Peace Corps in China and helped my site mate with a Spanish-language club she started for our students. When I returned home I worked as a census enumerator in my hometown where I was tasked with interviewing Chinese households that none of the enumerators and supervisors were able to communicate with. Nowadays, I like to share my heritage with Chinese students at the HNC through food. Although I cannot cook for them because of the virtual situation, I share pictures. For example, one holiday tradition is to cook something called “tamales” each winter. Tamales usually consist of meat packed in corn masa wrapped in a corn husk. This is remarkably similar to Chinese “zongzi” which is typically eaten for the Dragon Boat Festival. Although I describe tamales in Chinese as “Mexican zongzi/墨西哥粽子), tamales actually predate zongzi by at least 7000 years.
Austin: As a Hispanic/Latino person, did your background have an impact on choosing to study Chinese or your interest in China?

Elizabeth: I was born and raised in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community in Dallas, Texas. I attended a charter school (6th - 12th grade) that only offered Spanish as a foreign language course. As a native-Spanish speaker, I was disappointed, and as a result, my goal when entering college was to learn a new language. I chose Chinese because I always found Chinese culture exciting and an essential skill for business people and world travelers alike.
Austin: Do you see any cultural similarities between Hispanic/Latino cultures and Chinese culture?

Elizabeth: There are a couple of cultural similarities between Hispanic/Latino cultures and Chinese culture. For example, in both cultures, people are known for their hospitality, as they are very welcoming of guests and will do everything within their means to make a guest feel at home. When a guest visits my home, we always offer a snack and drink. When I studied abroad in China, I realized this was the same thing for Chinese families. Also, it is demonstrated during dinner. The host(s) will make sure you are well fed by placing more food onto your plate, urging you to eat more. This is also something done in Hispanic/Latino culture. On a related note, Chinese and Hispanics/Latino cultures both emphasize that trust is based mainly on personal relationships and rapport. If you would like to conduct any type of business with a Chinese or a Hispanic person, they would like to get to know you better through dinner or even by introducing you to their family.
Austin: Do you plan to integrate Latin America or the Hispanic/Latino community in the US into your current studies or future career? If so, how?

Elizabeth: If we can study on campus soon, I would probably say that I want to attend or start a bachata dancing club, where I can help teach students to dance bachata or other Hispanic/Latin dances. In my future career, I hope that by being able to speak both Spanish and Chinese, I will contribute more to my job.
Austin: Do you have any cultural traditions that you would share with Chinese classmates and friends?

Elizabeth: Previously, when I studied in China, I taught my Chinese classmates and friends Loteria, a traditional card game similar to bingo. You play for a pot of money by charging each player a fee for each game board used. The caller draws the individual cards one at a time, and the players cover the corresponding pictures on the game board. I want to share this with my current Chinese classmates and friends. Also, I would like to share Mexican Buñuelos, which are similar to youtiao 油条 because it is fried dough, but Buñuelos are thin, round, and covered with cinnamon and sugar.

A Changing World

One thing I find interesting is that there seems to be huge interest in the Spanish language in China over recent years. To better understand this growth in interest and its implications for the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, I interviewed Co-Director Webb, who has connections to the Spanish-speaking world himself. 

Austin: Have you noticed an increase in HNC students that speak or are learning Spanish over the years? Likewise for students interested in Latin America and potential connections to China?

Dr. Webb: I have noticed a decent level of interest in any speakers dealing with Latin American topics, and a fair number of theses touching on Latin America as well. There has always been some proficiency in Spanish in the background among international students. Lately there is also some growth among Chinese students with some exposure. We have young alumni such as Margaret Myers and Guillermo García Montenegro who work on issues related to Latin America, too.

Austin: What types of potential opportunities do you see for building HNC's connections with Latin America in the future?

Dr. Webb: Building up more systematic coverage of China and the Global South, including Latin America, is a high priority as we are especially well situated for this to be one of HNC's strong points. As a bilingual institution with Nanjing University's base in China and as one of the Johns Hopkins SAIS campuses, we can engage with these themes more deeply than others could. We have tried lately to make internship opportunities more visible to our students. Fundraising for postdoctoral fellowships and other support is among our goals for the 35th anniversary year. It could also be exciting to explore short-term experiential learning trips in the region. A cluster of several such initiatives and the right expertise could attract more students to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center as the place to learn about such issues and to build networks.

Austin: Do you have any personal connections or interests in the Spanish-speaking world?

Dr. Webb: I spent several years in Spain as a child and still keep close ties and spend some time there every year. I have also been quite engaged with Latin America. My second book, A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow's Economy of Values (2009), was based on several rounds of fieldwork dealing with the challenges of modernization and social movements in the Peruvian highlands. I have never considered myself a China specialist in the narrow sense. Trying to build up a broader perspective on global issues, including China's interactions with distant parts of the world, thus comes naturally to me.
Chinese Students and the Spanish Language
With my own observations in mind and Co-Director Webb’s observations about Chinese students and broader trends at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, I interviewed a Chinese student, Yang Siqi, who previously studied abroad in Mexico and learned Spanish.
Austin: What made you interested in learning Spanish and studying abroad in Mexico?

Yang Siqi: I got interested in Spanish at first because I was interested in football, and I was in the school football team in middle school. Spain was very famous for football at the time and that’s how I became interested. I also heard that Spanish people and Latin American people are very passionate and I think it suits my personality so I was interested in learning more. I wanted to go to Mexico because my professor told me it’s easier for a foreigner to integrate in Latin America because the people are very open to foreigners and are warm and will welcome you into their circles.
Austin: Do you plan to integrate Latin America into your studies or future career?
Yang Siqi: Yes! I took a course with Johns Hopkins SAIS this semester called Understanding Modern Latin American Politics because I was quite interested in the politics and economics of the region. If there are similar courses next semester I think I will choose them. In the future I hope my career could be related to Spanish or Latin American studies, but that will still depend on available opportunities.
Austin: Is there anything you learned in Mexico you found interesting as a Chinese person or something you like to tell friends and family about?
Yang Siqi: There are many things that I found interesting about Mexico. The people there do not reject newcomers in their circles and will warmly welcome and integrate new people to their groups. That made me feel at home. I think the people there enjoy to live in the moment rather than constantly focus or worry about the future. This life attitude has affected me a lot even now, especially with the pandemic and not being sure what could happen tomorrow. I feel that I am adopting their attitude of living in the moment. 

Also, I found that the people in Latin America are very intimate with each other. They often kiss and hug each other and have a lot of physical contact. Among friends and family they are very close and intimate. I do not have this kind of relationship in China where people maintain a distance with each other in order to be polite. People are not as warm and intimate here in general. I kind of like the atmosphere in Mexico because it makes me feel more at home.