Honoring Our Culture: A Hispanic and Latine Heritage Month Reflection

Sandra Santana
In honor of Hispanic and Latine Heritage Month, Head of School Jenny Rao reflects on her identity as a Latina growing up in Mexico City, and the role heritage has played in her evolution from international student to Head of School.
Growing up around Hispanic or Latin culture, there is a certain liveliness that surrounds you. Whether it’s sitting around a table full of boisterous laughter, enjoying the most flavorful bites of your abuela’s meals, or dancing at neighborhood gatherings that simply have no end time, there is something convivial that just feels distinctly Latin. Head of School Jenny Rao remembers that quality vividly from her childhood. “Growing up in Mexico was great: food, language, a way of interacting socially with one another. There's a lot of humor in our interactions and very little formality. I think it is really unique to the Latin culture and something that was pivotal in my upbringing. There's an enormous sense of everybody feeling like family.”

Living in Mexico, Ms. Rao never really thought much about her identity because there weren’t many differences between her and the outward identities of others. Spanish was her first language and just about everyone in her life was Mexican: friends, classmates, and family. (Although her father is British/American, he spent the majority of his life in Mexico.) “I wasn't in a school like Emma where there were folks from all over the world,” she reflected, “so I took it for granted.

I think that I gained awareness of my heritage once I left Mexico because I find that it's not until we are in a world where there's difference that you notice it. I actually said that to one of our international families–that they will observe their kids think a lot more of their country of origin being away than being there.” An international student herself, Ms. Rao spent 18 years in Mexico before coming to the US for her undergraduate studies in economics at Bates College in Maine. 

Reflecting on the intersection of her Latin heritage and international educational experience, Ms. Rao shared that she has “profound empathy for the experience of being another identity or not being in the majority culture, and feeling intimidated by slang, jokes, or parts of the education that are expected in the United States that a student would not have had back home.” 

“I think about our international students sitting in our US history classes, not having much of the context. I have empathy for them because I know it's hard, and I also think it's great for them. I think my perspective and my intellect and my heart has been challenged even more because I had to engage in those disciplines, and in that learning, without having had the same on-ramp as the majority culture. 

“I'd like to imagine that I have greater access to empathy because of my own experience. I also—and this is I think human nature—feel the most at ease and in comfort with our students and families who are either international or of some type of marginalized experience.” She continued, “I can't put it into words, but my body, mind, ethos are in the greatest ease when I am interacting with folks that have an experience that is similar to mine.” Such an experience is not difficult to find at Emma Willard School, where our student body represents 36 countries and 21 states in the 2022-2023 year.

As the 17th Head of School at Emma Willard, Ms. Rao acknowledges how her individual identity plays an integral role in how she leads our institution, both now and into the future. “I think it's impossible to separate our identity from our work experience, and I would argue that leadership in particular, makes it impossible. One of the opportunities, but also responsibilities, is that your decisions affect ever greater and greater circles of people. I say that because you need to live with a decision and feel really good about it, and the only way to feel really good about it is if it's authentically you. If the decision is authentically you, it's impossible to separate it from your identity.”  She continued, “The biggest decisions that I've had to make at Emma…I'm certainly thinking about them an enormous amount.--I never make them overnight. I need to let them sit and be sure that I can live with those decisions with every part that has determined ‘Jenny’ as an individual: a Mexican, a woman, a mother, whatever the different identifiers are. I believe that we can't only, especially as leaders, think about the experiences that are familiar to us. We are responsible for all the experiences existing in the constituency we oversee.”

While holding close to her identity in her leadership role, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) play a significant part in how Ms. Rao approaches her work. “I always want to awaken in myself: What am I not thinking about? What am I not considering? Who is not included in this conversation? What perspective is not being given weight?” When thinking about the future of DEI and Emma Willard School, Ms. Rao offered, “I think we need to look at the policies and procedures that set up our school in a particular way, and see if that particular way honors all individuals. If it doesn't, we need to think about what we need to correct to make sure that those policies are fixed to create a good, diverse, inclusive community. I think what we've learned is that just having diverse perspectives in a school will not equate to a rich dialogue. We then need to do the work as a community to make sure that every single individual feels empowered and comfortable in bringing forth their point of view.” 

Having as diverse of a community as we do, there are a number of opportunities to learn about the personal and cultural identities we represent. Ms. Rao believes that the power of understanding one another finds root in our ability—and willingness—to build new relationships. “Where I think you really open your heart and mind to understand a different culture and a different human being is through relationships. My hope is that those happen organically, but whatever we can do as a school to facilitate true relationships across different cultures is awesome, I think.” At Emma, we have the unique opportunity to watch students from all walks of life come together over a common interest alongside beginning new and meaningful friendships. “That’s how real magic happens.”

More and more, we are learning how powerful, beautiful, and necessary cultural representation is, not only in our school, but society as a whole. While women are more frequently achieving accolades and top roles in professional fields, we still find ourselves significantly underrepresented among our male counterparts in positions of power. Ms. Rao shared, “We are a school that is constantly trying to show different role models and, if those role models don't yet exist, imbue our students with the confidence to imagine themselves, and worlds, that have yet to be inhabited. To look for a role model that might have aspects of their identity that are familiar to them. At the end of the day, there's intersectionality in all of us.” 

Outside of Emma Willard School, there are many facets of Ms. Rao’s culture that she now shares with her own family. Food, like many Hispanic and Latin families, is at the center. “I cook with a lot of chiles, and we eat tortillas!” She grinned, adding that there were even certain foods and drinks her boys, Santiago and Ivan, will ask for in Spanish. “I grew up having homemade lemonade all the time, and I would call it juguito. Now, my boys arrive home every day from school asking, “Mama, is there juguito?!” 

While Hispanic and Latine Heritage Month is coming to a close, Ms. Rao reminds us how special it is to feel a sense of pride in our own personal identities. Whether we pass our favorite traditions down or share aspects of our cultures with new friends, embracing and accepting the differences we have is incredibly powerful. “I think our heritage and where we come from is something really valuable, sacred, and beautiful.” 
Emma Willard Head of School Jenny C. Rao

Emma Willard Head of School Jenny C. Rao