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Presence Voices: Hispanic Heritage Month with Kelci Santiago, MS, CCC-SLP

Nearly five years after Hurricane Maria brought destruction to Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona struck on Sunday, September 18, causing catastrophic flooding, cutting power, and setting back the island’s recovery. To support the people of Puerto Rico in their recovery, please see the links shared at the bottom of this Voices blog post.

How does your Hispanic Heritage shape your values or choices?

My grandparents Margot and Juan Santiago both came to the United States from Puerto Rico—Margot from Corozal in the mountains and Juan from Arecibo on the shores of the Atlantic. They came separately in the fifties and met, married, and raised my family in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A large community of Puerto Ricans came from Puerto Rico to Bethlehem for the steel work. My father was the first generation, and I grew up as the second generation. We were surrounded within our town by a huge Puerto Rican population so I grew up within my Puerto Rican culture, within the larger city.

Especially when I went to college, I could see the differences for the first time when I was no longer within my Puerto Rican bubble and experienced so many different people from different states and different cultures. As the only one with a Puerto Rican heritage, I started to notice differences in the values of my community and these communities that were new to me. Growing up within my close-knit community, I think I had assumed that everyone has the same values and same ways that they communicate with others, and the same ways that they gather as a group within their family and within their community.

Even now, as an adult, I have many aunts and uncles and cousins, and people from my church in my life. It’s not just my immediate family. It’s extended family as well, and it’s a large group of people. I learned early on that within my Puerto Rican community, everyone’s different and everyone is their own person. I cherish that. I learned to love and respect people for who they are regardless of whether they’re different than I am.

My grandmother was very warm and very loving. She and my Papa were leaders within the Hispanic community in Bethlehem. My grandfather was a Trustee and member of the Spanish Council Board and a member of Puerto Rican Beneficial Society. They were prominent leaders within the church. As a kid I remember going to community yard sales to help people within the community who didn’t have access to things that were affordable. So I grew up seeing my grandparents model giving their time to serve others who may not have as much as them. That was something that was normal—it wasn’t like I had to do this. It was just very natural, and it was great to see.

I miss their unconditional kindness where people could enter the room and feel the warmth and the love. So I think that shaped me into how I got to where I am as a speech therapist. I wanted to work with children. I thought it was really important to give back to those that didn’t necessarily have a voice. That was something that really hit me in graduate school. I was a special education major and went on to receive my master’s in speech-language pathology.

I had a professor who said,  “How would you feel if you couldn’t communicate?” And I thought “Oh, my goodness, that’s such a powerful thing. What if you can’t communicate?”

My grandparents left their home and acted as leaders within their community to give back and help those who didn’t pick up the skills and have the necessary resources. My grandfather took English classes at the community college so he could improve his English and learn to communicate better with others who were native English speakers. I think that was really powerful, and I think that shaped how I work with children. I just want them to become better communicators and learn how to advocate for themselves, and learn how to communicate in a way that others will be kind and receptive to the way that they share.

My grandfather used to say “You’re going to be a teacher.” Within my generation of small children that grew up being my brothers and sisters and cousins, I think he always saw that I was aimed to be that teacher, and it always just stuck with me, and I followed that vision. I think that you know teaching has its down sides—it can be difficult and there are many challenges. You’re not necessarily rewarded financially for doing it. You do it because you love it. You like spending the time with kids and you appreciate it.

I have fun with the kids. It’s a lot of fun to bring music—we always grew up singing and I’ll sing in my sessions. So with music and art, I encourage the kids to draw out their thoughts if they can, and express them. I’m teaching that they can communicate in all different ways to express themselves.

Can you talk about a time when your culture and heritage made a difference in your career, or helped you to overcome a challenge?

I feel like it’s given me resilience. I think of people I know, especially family members, not just my dad’s generation, but my grandparents’ generation. I think about the struggle of my grandparents’ siblings who were trying to make it in this new country where they’re not native English speakers, they don’t have the set job skills and they’re coming into a whole new and different environment than what they’re used to, while leaving behind so many of their family members so they are making this choice.

Sometimes it’s just challenging. But when I want to give up, I think that seeing the resiliency of my grandparents has allowed me to continue pushing through when obstacles or challenges arise in my own life, realizing that this is only minor—I know I have love and support from people that care about me. And I have a community that’s willing to stand by me and support me through anything that does come up.

I have so many people that I am surrounded by—family, extended family, and then community members within the Puerto Rican culture—friends, and friends of friends. And I maintain those relationships, and continue to watch people grow. I know that I have a large support system to be there and guide me, and challenge me to continue to improve myself and stay on the right path.

Organizations Supporting Hurricane Fiona Recovery in Puerto Rico

Direct Relief

Global Giving

Hispanic Federation

World Central Kitchen

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