From Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, Hispanic Heritage Month is about recognizing and appreciating the harmony of a culture that has historically had a profound impact on America—and to discover the people who have contributed to this legacy.
This year’s theme, “Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation,” reinforces the need to ensure diverse voices and perspectives are represented and welcomed to help build stronger communities and a stronger nation.
A highlight of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Hispanic Heritage Month celebration is a program titled “Our Stories: Nuestras Historias,” which takes place at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, at Lupton Hall.
A collaboration between the UTC and Chattanooga communities, “Our Stories: Nuestras Historias” aims to share stories of professional journeys. The event is sponsored by the UTC Division of Diversity and Engagement and Latina Professionals of Chattanooga with assistance from student leaders of the UTC Hispanic Outreach Leadership Association (HOLA).
One of the panelists sharing her story is Niky Tejero, the Frances Hall Hill Professor of Music and associate dean of the UTC College of Arts and Sciences.
“What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to me? It’s a hallmark for remembering and reflecting on the richness of my heritage and an opportunity to celebrate what makes us who we are,” said Tejero, who was born in the Yucatán region of Mexico before coming to the U.S.—and Chattanooga—as a 10-year-old.
“I remember experiences like going to the park on Sunday afternoon and listening to ‘trovadores’ playing music; watching dancers dancing folk dance—‘jaranas;’ listening to artists extemporizing poetry, and the poetry was so beautiful. Much of it is about love and pride in your homeland, and there’s such a sense of love and appreciation for roots.”
Trovadores, she explained, are troubadours or minstrels who often improvised songs as part of their entertainment. A jarana is a typical couple’s dance from the Yucatán region that involves intricate footwork called zapateo.
“In the Latin American sensibility, there’s a lot more of taking that time to reflect on yesterday and yesteryear and the previous generations,” she continued, “and that connection to the past is such a strong source for contemplation.”
Tejero’s story begins with her parents, Pedro and Gwen. He was a doctor from Mexico; she was a nurse from Brooklyn.
“My father was born into a really humble family,” she said. “He managed to put himself through school playing minor league baseball and soccer.”
Her mother worked as a nurse at a New York City hospital where her father happened to complete one of his medical residencies. When his residency was over, he moved back to Mexico to start his career.
Pedro and Gwen kept in touch and courted long distance for eight years before getting married. The ceremony took place in New York City and they moved to Mexico to live.
“By then, my father had established himself as a reconstructive plastic surgeon,” Tejero said. “His specialty was cleft palates and cleft lips.”
She said her parents became a versatile and portable surgical team.
“About once a month, they would take us to my grandparents’ house on the beach in the port town where my father was born and leave us there for the weekend,” she recalled, “and then they’d go off into a village to perform surgeries to people who not only didn’t have the money to afford it but didn’t have access to the cities where such treatments were available.”
Eventually, Pedro and Gwen decided to immigrate to the U.S. with their five children, settling in Chattanooga.
“I personally came to this country in a somewhat safe and predictable and easy way,” she said. “My mother was an American citizen, so I was born with American citizenship. That’s a very different path than many in our Hispanic community or Latinx community. Many of these people face grave dangers. They put themselves at personal risk in hopes of having a better life.”
By the time Tejero graduated from Hixson High School in Chattanooga, she was living in a single-income household; her father had died and her mother supported five children on a nurse’s salary.
“When I think about how to make a difference in the world, I feel like I have one of the strongest templates; that was my dad and my mom,” she said.
“My father had the belief that anything was possible with enough time and dedication and willingness to sacrifice, and he lived that example. He modeled for us a high-achieving mentality and led us to believe that we were capable of anything.”
Tejero received a bachelor’s degree in music: clarinet performance from UTC in 1995; a master’s degree from Baylor University in 1997; and a doctorate in music arts from the University of Kentucky in 2011.
She joined UTC as an adjunct instructor in 1998 and moved up the faculty ranks before being granted a leave of absence by former Arts and Sciences Dean Herb Burhenn to pursue doctoral coursework. After the degree was conferred, Tejero was promoted to a tenure-track line.
“So yes, I have had a long and somewhat unusual trajectory,” she said with a smile.
As is her story of arriving in Chattanooga as a 10-year-old.
“Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to step back and reflect on history, on culture, on family,” she said, “and some of my strongest memories from my childhood are culturally rooted.
“When I think about people sharing their stories, it’s about opening a window to some of the very real and personal circumstances that have brought people here.”
The UTC Hispanic Heritage Month celebration is coordinated by the Office of Multicultural Affairs in collaboration with other campus and community areas. The events calendar includes:
- Tuesday, Sept. 20: Latin Dance Night, 8 p.m. at Lupton Hall. A dance experience featuring student leaders from the Hispanic Outreach Leadership Association (HOLA).
- Wednesday, Sept. 21: Mocs Dining Chef’s Spotlight, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at Crossroads Dining Hall. Featured cultural dishes will be available at the Home Zone Station.
- Thursday, Sept. 22: Our Stories—Nuestras Historias, 5:30 p.m. at Lupton Hall. A collaboration between the UTC and Chattanooga communities with shared stories from professionals and their journeys.
- Wednesday, Sept. 28: Mocs Dining Chef’s Spotlight, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at Crossroads Dining Hall. Featured cultural dishes will be available at the Home Zone Station.
- Tuesday, Oct. 4: Lotería Game Night, 6 p.m. at Lupton Hall. An introduction to lotería, a traditional game of chance similar to bingo—but using images on a deck of cards.
- Thursday, Oct. 6: Screen on the Green Movie Night, 8:30 p.m. on Chamberlain Field.
- Wednesday, Oct. 12: Hispanic Heritage Networking Event and Artist Showcase, 5:30 p.m. at Lupton Hall. A networking event for students, faculty, staff and community partners, with featured artist Kristina Sánchez, who hails from Costa Rica, showcasing her signature artwork.
The popular Fiesta Fridays, informal meet-and-greets with music and small souvenir treat bags, will take place every Friday (between Sept. 23-Oct. 14) from noon-1 p.m. at the Multicultural Center.
A complete listing of activities can be found on the Multicultural Center’s Hispanic Heritage Month page.
The UTC Library is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with an array of themed electronic resources that can be perused at one’s pace. Resources can be found on the Library’s Celebrating Hispanic Heritage page.
Initially started as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Hispanic Heritage Month was expanded to a month-long observation in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan.
The remembrance goes from the middle of one month to the middle of the next because many Latin American countries gained independence from Spain between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15.