Nuestra Cultura (Our Culture)

Last updated: September 13, 2023, at 6:37 p.m. PT

Originally published: September 13, 2023, at 6:37 p.m. PT

"Cultura Hispanic & Latinx Heritage Month"

Liz Toledo-Cruz

By Liz Toledo-Cruz
Chief Branch & Administrative Officer, YMCA of Greater Seattle

Está en nuestra cultura. It's in our culture to be open, loving, and, well, sometimes stubborn.  

That stubbornness was born from the many trials Hispanic and Latinx immigrant communities have had to overcome. So, I like to see that stubbornness as a symbol of strength and perseverance. And I would be lying if I said that stubbornness hadn't come into play throughout my life and 37-year Y career -- in the best possible way. 

I was inspired to work for the Y in my hometown, New York. You see, there hadn't been a Y there for a while. Not since I was a kid attending the Uptown YMCA. And the community, my community, was resistant to bringing the Y back at first. But I knew firsthand of the benefits.  

The Y gave me the opportunity to see a world outside the barriers in my community. There was an unspoken rule that you didn't leave the certain square miles we lived in. And the Y was the first experience that stretched me beyond my local community to a world of new experiences and opportunities. The Y took me camping and canoeing. It even took me to my first time in a Chinese restaurant. I learned how to play basketball and joined a Y basketball team. I was terrible, but still. The Y taught me not only how to be healthier but also to have a fuller and richer lifestyle by exposing me to new things. It was all the things that were foreign, yet enriching, to me and to my community. 

Although all these activities were new and challenging, I was determined to try them. I was exposed to a world unlike my own. I know firsthand how meaningful the Y can be to a child if you put a caring adult in her path. My eagerness (some call it stubbornness) to move up the ladder in the Y movement was fueled by my determination that no one could represent my community better than me. I knew if I had a seat at the table where decisions were being made about my community, I could make a difference. 

Having those relationships and trust are invaluable. The resistance I originally felt melted away when my community realized that I was one of their own and that I could represent their best interests. 

Today, more than ever, there is Hispanic/Latinx representation at the Y. And while we still have a long way to go, there are many local Hispanic and Latinx leaders who are rooted strongly within their communities. They are tackling issues that will improve the world for all of us. At the Y, we have many Latinx leaders who are serving their communities, like Rene De Los Santos. 

Liz Toledo-Cruz

Rene is part of our Health Equity team. He provides culturally relevant programming to the Latinx communities in the Greater Seattle Area. As a Bilingual Whole Person Health Navigator, he provides vital health programs like ACT, Diabetes Prevention, Chronic Disease Prevention, Heart Pressure Monitoring, and more in Spanish.   

I wanted to hear more about the next generation of leaders at the Y. And when I asked Rene what started his journey at the Y, he replied it was his mom. Rene's mom, a nurse, demonstrated to him how no small effort is too small to support your community. "My mom was a big influence on me. She taught me that if someone needs your help, you should do your best to help. Every opportunity you have to help, you should." said Rene.  

Rene joined the Health Equity team when he saw how his community needed help accessing lifesaving healthcare resources. He works hard to connect the Y and his community by building trusted relationships. Rene explained, "We see everyone as family. And we always try to help our family. They may not be our actual cousins, but they are our primos. We are always trying to help each other out. You can almost feel that sense of relief that these hard topics or conversations are not coming from a stranger. But rather, they are happening with a friend, a cousin -- family."   

Rene's work is not easy. Funding can be restrictive, and he works diligently to find new ways to support these efforts. "We're resourceful. We have learned to be tough and persevere during challenging times. And I try to remember that if you are met with a 'no,' do not give up. You can always look around to find someone who will say yes. Especially if it's something you believe in.," said Rene. 

Rene is an expert in stubbornness. He comes with plans, creativity, and leadership packed in a bow, making it almost impossible to say no. He focuses on what he brings to the table that will make you want to say yes. And we need more people to embrace this talent in themselves. Now, Rene also serves as the co-chair of our local Latin American and Hispanic Employee Resource Group (ERG) and the national Y-USA Latinx ERG. 

Rene and I both found our mission in serving others through the Y. Nuestra cultura is one of determination and transformation – two values that also happen to be woven into the Y's DNA. That's one more reason I'm still going strong after 37 years! And I am so proud of our progress in representing our cultures. This Hispanic & Latinx Heritage Month, I hope we can all find a bit of that Y spirit and curiosity to explore outside of what we know. This month is the perfect opportunity to explore further and challenge stereotypes, learn about others' cultures, and share pride in our diverse communities. You can find local events and learn more about our programs and community resources available year-round. Nos vemos muy pronto (see you soon)!