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Lunch and learn for Hispanic Heritage Month leaves audience reflecting on self-discovery

It is officially week one of National Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration aimed at paying tribute to those of Hispanic descent as well as their unique culture and individual contributions that have enriched the United States. The University of Maine Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) has dedicated several events to recognizing the devoted students and community members who identify as Hispanic or Latinx.

The first program was a lunch and learn on Sept. 20 in the Multicultural Student Center of the Memorial Union. After traditional Mexican food was served, everyone in attendance gathered to experience a presentation by Taylor Ashley, titled “Exploring Cuban Roots as a College Student.”

Ashley is the coordinator for ODI. He expressed an overall objective of building a diverse and close-knit community of students.

Ashley centered his presentation around the shift between lacking clarity of one’s roots to self- realization and reflection. The stages that he himself had experienced were split up into four parts: early days, lost years, exploration and lastly, transformation. 

His early days were spent in Miami, Florida with his extended family, which immigrated to America after the Cuban Revolution. In that household, solely Spanish was spoken, and upon going out into the world and starting school, Ashley felt different from those around him. This gave rise to the lost years, when he was sent away to Texas by his family after a series of misbehaviors that caused harm both internally and externally. 

In Texas, Ashley worked with his grandfather at a butcher shop and viewed it as a sort of punishment. He refused to continue with Spanish and rejected his grandmother’s attempt to speak to him in her native language on college move-in day his freshman year. 

Around this time, his family was given the opportunity to travel to Barcelona and towards the very end of that trip, Ashley experienced a major shift in perspective. 

“Luckily, on the last day of this trip, I had an overwhelming transformational experience when coming back into Barcelona. I was in the place where I connected to that epiphany, a lightbulb going off that ‘life doesn’t have to be this way’,” Ashley said. 

The second international adventure was to China. It was there that Ashley met his people: other travelers. He found himself thriving in hostel environments. It became clear that the next step of his journey was to study Spanish at university, starting from square one. 

“At this hostel, I got to stay under the same roof as people from 64 different countries. Not just staying under the same roof, but having a meal together with them, having a conversation,” said Ashley.

In 2007, he ended up being able to go to Cuba alongside an Episcopal church group. The missionaries’ destination happened to be eight hours east of Havana, precisely where Ashley’s family is originally from. 

“I come back home from this trip having achieved another milestone in my transformative journey, speaking the language, going and visiting Cuba,” said Ashley

Following this, Ashley knew that he wanted to study abroad and where better to do so than the place that his epiphany first transpired: Barcelona. 

“I returned and connected with my great-grandma. I am showing her photos and tears are falling from her eyes. Just tears of happiness. The connection that someone in our family cares and loves and appreciates them as elders but also that this will live on,” said Ashley. 

The hardships of Ashley’s early days were greatly diminished through his immersement in other cultures and willingness to be vulnerable in self-discovery. For anyone out there struggling to understand their own identity, transformation is not linear and is something that can be evoked at any age.

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