Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Four HKS Members Share their Stories

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated September 15 to October 15 each year to honor the contributions of Hispanic Americans throughout United States history. This year’s theme — “Esperanza,” the Spanish word for hope — is especially timely given the state of the world.

Hispanic Heritage Month coincides with the national independence days of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile and Belize.

While the month recognizes contributions of Hispanic Americans to our history, culture, and achievements, it is also a reminder that Hispanic Americans and Latin Americans offer diverse perspectives and experiences that cannot be classified with one brushstroke.

More than 62 million Americans – at least 19 percent of the nation’s population – identified as Hispanic in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

We spoke to four members of HKS – all of whom represent different practice areas and experience levels – to understand what their Hispanic heritage means to them and how it has shaped them personally and professionally.

From left to right, German Carmona, Mariana Santiago, Nicole Acarón-Toro, and Priscilla Cuadra

What is your heritage?

Nicole Acarón-Toro — Project Architect, Los Angeles

Boricua. I’m Puerto Rican, born and raised in the Island, which depending on the lens you look at it with, makes me an immigrant, even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth.

German Carmona — Senior Urban and Architectural Designer, New York City

I was born and raised in Argentina. My mother and her family are Italian immigrants, and my father is from Spaniard and Portuguese descent. I am of Latin descent, even though I do not identify as Latino. I think most Argentineans don’t, since that corner of Latin America is more of a melting pot of heritage. I do consider myself “White Hispanic of Latin descent.”

Priscilla Cuadra — Architect, Miami

My family is Nicaraguan.

Mariana Santiago — Design Professional, Dallas

I was born in Argentina, but I also have Italian and Lebanese heritage.

This year’s theme for Hispanic Heritage Month is “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope.” What does that mean to you personally?

Acarón-Toro: I strive to walk in the world with esperanza y fé (hope and faith) always guiding me, knowing that hope needs to be grounded in action for my path to lead towards growth and alignment with my highest self. As an individual, I grow wiser the more I expose myself to different cultural backgrounds and traditions, and it is my hope that Hispanic and Latinx communities, not only this month, but year-round, feel empowered to represent and expose who we are in a way that provokes curiosity in others to celebrate our beautiful nuances and grow wiser altogether.

Cuadra: The word “esperanza” or hope reminds me of the purpose a lot of Immigrants, including my family, have when moving to this country. It reminds me of the American Dream, and the grit it takes to succeed.

Santiago: To me, hope is essential for our wellbeing, hope that things will be better each day. I believe in the importance of hope but also of hard work and persistence. When working hard on something that you believe in, you understand its true value. You begin to respect the work itself and build some good qualities along the way.

As an individual, I grow wiser the more I expose myself to different cultural backgrounds and traditions.

Reflecting on your heritage, upbringing and/or values, what are you most proud of about your culture?

Acarón-Toro: When going back in studying ancestral traditions, all dances, music, and celebrations were organized in a circular manner, highlighting that everyone is equally important, and holds their own weight in contributing to the collective community.  This directly translates to our present, in which we still lift each other up, and face adversities together, with an incredible resiliency and joy.

Carmona: My heritage values and culture are why I picked a city like New York City for my home. It is a clear melting pot of backgrounds, races, beliefs, culture – all of it! New York City and my home country, Argentina, are the perfect celebration of inclusivity and individualism at the same time.

Cuadra: There are a lot of things to be proud of, but most of all, I’m proud of being raised by fearless people. I admire their ability to adjust to a completely new environment, and most importantly, how they chose to see the humor in their struggles to fit in.

There’s always room for the design industries to grow and advance. What are some ways we can restore power to underrepresented communities through our profession?

Acarón-Toro: For current professionals, really diving and listening to the communities where their projects are located at is key, yet we also need to look at future generations of architects for further growth.  When I contrast my experience studying architecture in Puerto Rico vs studying and teaching in LA, the curriculum in PR was more diverse, promoting studies of local and vernacular architecture, architecture from Spain, Latin America and other parts of the world, and several design studios with projects sited in underrepresented communities.  I truly believe the Academia in the U.S. has room to improve in representation as well as instill values that hold our professionals accountable as citizen architects.

Carmona: I believe the answer is already happening. Acknowledgement is the first step toward it, and we are talking about it, aren’t we? Then action of course, and I want to believe we are also starting to do it. I remember one of my first projects in our New York office was the first time I attended a client meeting where HKS was determined to stand in front of a client panel making sure all genders and at least five races were represented in the selected team members who attended. It made me so proud and surprised at the same time, it was completely unprecedented for me.  

Santiago: The role of the Latin community is already growing. To nurture this, we need to be receptive and empathetic to other people’s backgrounds. What has helped me with this in the past is to experience new things and being out of my comfort zone.