Who decides what Hispanic means? An interview with Sonja Chavez, the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District

“You’re too dark to be Hispanic,” is the response Sonja Chavez got from her light-skinned, freckled, red-haired, Mexican peer after self-identifying as Hispanic. She responded, “well then you must be too white to be Mexican.” Since her youth, Sonja has had to deal with a misunderstanding of her Hispanic identity, which can be ambiguous for many Hispanic folks. 

If you have been following my blog series on diversity and inclusion, this is the second installment of the series, where I got the privilege to interview Sonja Chavez, the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. (Read the first and the second part here!)

Sonja Chavez is a Hispanic-American woman who grew up in a ranching community west of Trinidad, Colorado where her family has been for generations. Her first experience with the challenge of ‘labeling herself’ racially, like many other Hispanic and/or Latinx folks do, was when she left home to attend the University of Colorado. Her father is Spanish, and her mother has light skin, freckles, and red hair, but looks mostly Native American. Having a mixed ethnic and/or racial background is very common for Hispanic Americans, and historically has been part of the challenge in self-identification. Think about having to check only one census box when you do not neatly fit into any of them. She described her experience of coming from a semi-diverse Trinidad area, which had White, Hispanic, Mexican, and Italian people, to attending the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) which was, and still is, predominantly white. Luckily, she was able to join a club for Hispanic students at CU and find her way, but this came with a new challenging territory to navigate.

During her time at CU, Sonja had to deal with identity gatekeeping, defined as “The rejection/denial of part of a person’s identity, because it is seen by the rejector as not authentic,”. This occurred in her experience described above, which put racial and ethnic identity purely on the lines of skin color, and tried to deter her from the Hispanic identity because someone (within the Mexican community) deemed her “too dark”. She described the feeling of having to label herself neatly, or be put into a box. People assumed she was Mexican just because she came from Southwestern Colorado, even though her family never identified that way and did not practice Mexican culture. These harmful stereotypes often go unchecked, like the assumption that all Hispanics are Mexican, or all Asian people are Chinese. This erases the diversity that is found within the Hispanic community and limits the idea of who can be Hispanic. The Hispanic identity itself is very diverse, and you can be White, Black, Asian, or whatever else and still identify as Hispanic. No neat boxes are needed. 

Though Sonja’s time at CU initially came with challenges, she also had exposure to programs that could be part of the solution to job accessibility and training for minorities. Sonja participated in the SMART (The Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training) program which is a program intended for undergraduate students who are interested in preparing for graduate degrees in science, math, and engineering. Promoting and creating these types of programs are what she recommends for beginning to close the diversity gap in the environmental world. Bridging the educational and career worlds is important to help students gain experience and begin to create a network. This is often something students of color do not have access to throughout their undergraduate degrees. I asked her if she could tell her younger self one thing about beginning a career in the environmental world, what she would say. “Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Use your connections, build a network, and don’t give up,” she answered. These are important pieces of advice, but only accessible to those with connections. Programs like SMART address this issue because they foster connections and build a network by targeting people of color and encouraging them to pursue opportunities in the environmental, math, science, and engineering fields. 

“I think that there are opportunities for the Water Trust or for others to partner and help to bring more students of color to this field,” says Sonja. Collaborating with programs like SMART could be a part of increasing the accessibility to internships that are often so hard to find for people of color. 

Being put into specific boxes, and trying to neatly package up someone’s identity is an unproductive and hurtful task. Hopefully, with the work that Sonja recommended, individuals and organizations can begin to honor the complex identities that we all hold. This is only one step in the process, but it is an important one. Thank you so much to Sonja for sharing her experiences and unique viewpoint! 

Stay tuned for more upcoming blogs! -Tzigane 🙂