National Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated each year in the United States from September 15 to October 15, seeks to honor the diverse cultures and contributions of both Hispanic and Latino Americans to our society. As a first-generation Cuban-American, I’ve always been proud of my ancestry, which not only instilled in me a deep appreciation of croquetas and cafecito cubano, but also the merits of hard work, perseverance, and continuous improvement in all facets of life.
My parents were two teenagers going steady in the 1970’s when my mother’s family was granted permission by the Cuban government to leave for Miami due to my grandmother’s American ancestry. A year later my father, heartbroken at the prospect of leaving his homeland, endured the arduous boat journey to South Florida. This was during the Mariel boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans famously depicted in the now-iconic (but admittedly stereotype-laden) movie Scarface.
What my parents were hoping to achieve was simple, and something that many of us take for granted: freedom. I grew up listening to stories from Cuban family and friends on the hardships they faced in Cuba, but also the difficulties they experienced in acclimating to our culture. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to fully grasp how challenging it must have been for them to leave their home country with nothing but their determination, grit, and hope for a better life. My dad, now a civil engineer and business owner, has a quote hanging on his wall that perfectly describes his journey: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.”
My parents sought to carve out a better life for themselves, and then for their children. Their contributions—and those of other Cuban Americans like them—to the cultural fabric of the United States are immeasurable. In coming to this country, they overcame significant obstacles to integrate themselves into American society. But in doing so, they and countless others carved out a vibrant new culture that has influenced many spheres of American life, encompassing business, science, arts, politics and more. America gave my parents the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; my parents gave back in abundance.
As I reflect on their journey, I think about how we can ensure that similar opportunity exists for future generations of Hispanic Americans (and other ethnic groups) to thrive. That is, in part, why I’m proud to work for an employer that not only welcomes diverse perspectives to the table, but is undertaking important work to help shape a more sustainable, fair economy that benefits all its participants. Much of this work involves taking a hard look at the data to identify companies’ impacts on stakeholders and society, which includes assessing their roles in alleviating or exacerbating structural inequities.
And so, while we celebrate the innumerable accomplishments of Hispanic and Latino Americans, we also wanted to shed light on three issues that stand to materially impact the wellbeing of these communities. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but serves as an important reminder of the work that still remains when it comes to ensuring the American Dream is within grasp for all that seek it:
This year in particular, a wave of extreme weather events has made clear that no one, regardless of background or socioeconomic status, is likely to be spared the devastating effects of climate change. Analyses from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, have indicated that Hispanic and Latino communities may be among the hardest hit in the United States if global temperatures exceed pre-industrial averages by 2°C or more.
Per the EPA, in the United States, Hispanic and Latino individuals are 43% more likely than other individuals to live in areas most vulnerable to high temperatures and rising sea levels. As climate change introduces elevated temperatures, these regions are projected to see the greatest losses of labor hours in weather-exposed industries such as construction and agriculture—potentially threatening health, livelihoods and economic security.
Unfortunately, Hispanic workers are disproportionately likely to experience wage theft at the hands of unscrupulous employers. This wage theft can take many forms: minimum wage violations, excessive docking of tips, unauthorized deductions from employees’ paychecks, illegal adjustments to reported work hours, refusal to pay overtime for additional hours worked, and more. Although each of these transgressions is illegal, they often go unreported because workers aren’t aware of their rights or fear the repercussions associated with speaking up.
It’s not just small businesses that commit these violations, either—wage theft is a pervasive issue among some of the nation’s largest corporations. Enhanced regulatory oversight and outreach plays a central role in tackling this problem, but pressure from investors and consumers can also go a long way in encouraging companies to improve their labor standards.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and even exacerbated a number of health disparities. Data suggest that Hispanic people in the United States are more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID-19 infection than are white Americans; this invites a closer look at the underlying risk factors.
For one, it’s been noted that Hispanic and Latino workers are overrepresented in roles deemed “essential,” thus subjecting them to greater risk of exposure to the virus. Research has also indicated that Hispanic and Latino people living in the United States face disproportionate exposure to air pollution from fine particulate matter (PM2.5): tiny inhalable particles that can get into our lungs and even bloodstream. PM2.5 exposure has been linked to a range of negative health outcomes, including decreased lung function, respiratory issues, and asthma—which, as we now know, are risk factors for severe COVID-19 illness.
The millions of Hispanic and Latino people living in the United States make significant contributions to the U.S. economy, but have yet to be fully and fairly included here. At Ethic, we don’t see this as a zero-sum game: when everyone has the opportunity to thrive in our economy, we all stand to benefit. And that’s a future we’re working toward, every month of the year.