During Immigrant Heritage Month, we celebrate the history, culture, and contributions of those who have immigrated to the United States and their descendants.
As Guerline Jozef explains,
"I look around me, and I only see three very distinct groups of people in America. I see the Native Americans. I see the descendants of slaves who were born here against their wills, and I see immigrants. [...] We make this country what it is. That is why, as an immigrant, I find myself privileged to be able to work with other immigrants, other communities, to be able to fulfill that dream that out of many, we are one."
For this Staff Spotlight, we asked Jade Cintron Baez of Youth Services and Programs to talk about her own interview project, which explores bicultural identity, her passion for Spanglish, her fierce advocacy for Latinx communities in Philadelphia, and her love of singing in the car.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hello Jade. Thank you so much for being here. Let’s start off at the beginning. What is your full name?
My full legal name is Erika Jade Cintron. I go by Jade, and I use Cintron-Baez because Baez is my mom’s maiden name, and essentially the family I was raised by. I’ve always been very proud to be Cintron, but I feel like I needed to give a nod to the family that actually raised me, and who I feel that I represent more on a day-to-day basis.
How do you describe your heritage?
I come from a family that is Puerto Rican and Cuban. On my dad’s side, I’m Puerto Rican, but culturally I’m actually more Cuban, because I was very much raised by my mom’s side. My grandmother is such a huge force in my life. Bloodwise, I’m more Puerto Rican. Culturally, more Cuban. I call myself Americubarican!
Do you have a favorite "Grandma food" that makes you think of home?
So many! But it’s funny. I think I would normally say something everybody would expect, like arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and pernil (roasted pork shoulder). But when you said that, the first thing that came to mind was her making me baby food growing up. She would make these concoctions, just vegetables that were boiled and pureed together, that eventually became soups. So whenever I have a creamy soup, that’s what I think of. Food is love embodied, especially when it’s made by somebody at home.
What does bilingual or bicultural identity mean to you?
For me, it’s balancing between two worlds. I’m always talking about ni de aquí, ni de allá, being neither from here nor there. On a positive note, I always see it as kind of like I’m a chameleon. I have my Jersey things. I don’t like to pump my own gas. Or how we get very aggressive about a lot of things, but it’s not actual aggression, just overly passionate excitement. So I have my Jersey things. And then I can also hang out with all of the Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, in the Lancaster area. You put on music, and suddenly I’m dancing. I’m wearing my hoops. I have that part of me. And then I go to Miami, and I can be more Cuban. There’s a different side that comes out. So that’s what biculturalism means to me. Straddling those worlds.
That actually makes me think about fluency. The ability to speak different languages, to converse with different cultures, and engage with them.
Yes! I like that idea of fluency not only verbally or linguistically, but also culturally. Being able to adapt in that way. Even cultures that aren’t yours. You can also learn. Learned culture and learned fluency.
Jade performs a read-aloud for some of her young learners.
You work as a Bilingual Early Literacy Specialist at the Free Library. What does that mean, what do you do, and how do you bring that aspect of your multiple selves to this work?
I work between the library and my childcare centers, predominantly Latinx and Black daycares in North Philly, making sure they have access to resources and tools through the library, to professional development, and all-around language and literacy. My background as an ESL teacher and educator helps me to facilitate conversations with them, because I’ve been in a classroom, I know what this is like to be teaching someone in another language or to be working outside of your language comfort level. If I haven’t experienced it, my family has, so I’ve experienced it from a very personal place. I remember when I was a kid. I remember receiving unofficial dual language instruction, in English but with Spanish-speaking teachers. And I also learn things that I haven’t experienced from them.
What challenges have you faced?
In the past year and half, the fact that we couldn’t go into the classroom—occupational therapists, speech therapists—really affected teachers’ ability to teach. And those children, it really affected them. Especially during the pandemic, that’s been really interesting, because I feel like my job has been less literacy and language, and more support in other professional and personal ways. Helping talk my teachers and providers through options to best support the kids and to support them, their mental health. The word that comes to mind in Spanish is ánimo, the ganas, the motivation. To be able to say: Why am I doing this now? And also, [I was] calling state representatives to ask, where is your Spanish language representation? Because they can’t communicate right now. You know, looking at the small business loans, navigating that system has been really challenging but necessary. And sometimes just being there. Like, do you just need to shoot the breeze today? To help them feel, ok, like I can do this.
Well, it sounds like you did plenty of new things over the past year and a half! I know another of them is your interview project on Youtube, ¡Looking Bilingüe!. Tell me a little bit about the project.
¡Looking Bilingüe! is a story-telling series that is a celebration of bilingualism and biculturalism for the Latinx communities. I’m predominantly looking at people who feel ni de aquí, ni de allá (from neither here nor there), which tend to be first through third generation Latinxes. We have these stories to tell that reflect how we are received on both ends, from our distinctive Latino communities, but also from the American side. And the expectations that fall on both of those sides, what people are asking from us. On the American side, the kind of pressure when people want you to perform a culture. And on the Latinx side, you’re not really Puerto Rican or Cuban or Mexican because you weren’t born there, you don’t have the latest lingo, you don’t celebrate this [holiday]. But you’ve grown up in a household of people who were, and culture translates, culture is infused. This project is giving folks a platform to talk openly about their struggle, their celebrations, their challenges, their dreams, and hopes in creating what we are, this new thing. Saying, you know what? Spanglish is pretty awesome! And it shows a lot of linguistic intelligence.
Where did the idea come from, and how did you get started?
This project is meant to uplift us to give us a place to not worry about these two external forces coming at us, but to really deal with what we have. One of my interviewees, Stephanie Leiva, said, "speaking your culture". She said, you know, my Latinidad is not defined by my ability to speak Spanish. And everyone said that in some way. It’s who you are and how you receive your culture. It ties really nicely in with my work at the Free Library because this is my secret goal. I’m working to make sure that these kids, when they grow up, have access to be whatever Latinx means to them. That their teachers don’t shy away from speaking Spanish because it’s "easier" (entre comillas). Do it in both! So that by the time these kids are interviewing with me for ¡Looking Bilingüe! in 10 to 15 years, they hopefully won't have that weight on their shoulders that we do now. That they feel more accepted, [able] to say: This is who I am; if you’re not interested and you don’t like it, then move along.
You mentioned singing. You’re also into theater and dance. Is that another of your passions?
Yes, it absolutely is! Any opportunity to do musical theater, cabaret, a play, anything like that. [But] I realized from a very early age that I had zero interest in auditioning. I love [performing] because I love doing this. But this is my tool! It’s the way I’ve always taught, using theater and movement. I have incorporated that very heavily into my coaching style. What ends up being lacking is people being active with babies to five-year-olds. They’re like, but they won’t sit still! Well, because they’re five! So, how can we effectively teach them but also spend their energy? Let’s use that. Talking to theater students, [I say] don’t limit yourself, don’t limit the way you can use your artistry. My career path and my journey has been such proof of that. The week after my job shut down in March of 2020, and I was trying to figure out what my job was going to be, I said to myself: Ok, I can’t sing to them, that wouldn’t make any sense. (Interviewer laughs.) I could make a play? Ok, who am I talking to? To parents. And that’s how I developed the Early Learning Youtube channel for caregivers and teachers of young children.
What song can you not help but dance to?
Marc Anthony songs. I lose myself. Right now, I am obsessed with this song, "De Vuelta Pa’ La Vuelta". It’s a very full, physical song, so I love acting it out.
Name one thing you can’t wait to do this summer.
Traveling. Movement for me is super important. We’re trying to do as much as possible that is safe. We’re going to Disney World in July. That’s probably the most exciting thing for me coming up.
What do you love about the Free Library?
The job I had before this was a very abusive place for people of color, especially a woman of color that speaks a different language. When I came to the library, I was licking my wounds. I was suddenly really excited to be surrounded by a plethora of cultures and different looking people. I don’t feel alone here, just walking into the space. That was just a really comforting thing. And it made me realize that moving forward in my life, that needs to be a question at interviews for me: What is the diversity here? And how are we supported? I love our Youth Services department because we are so vocal in a way that supports that. I feel more empowered, and I’m with such powerful people who are moving us forward.
What are your hopes for the future right now?
I’m very interested in working with Latinx folks, greater second-language speakers, refugees, immigrants, all that encompasses, as a way of making sure that people understand that not all Americans are what it was for the past four years. We’re smart, and yes, I know where things are on a map. We are multilingual. We are multicultural. We’re accepting that, we’re excited, and we celebrate that. I want to move forward in everything I do, acknowledging and highlighting that. I won’t ever end up in a space again where I’m the only one of anything, where people don’t understand that kind of work and the passion we have at Youth Services.
Why should we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month and what does it mean to you?
It means a true sense of community. It’s us really sticking by what we said as Americans: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Owning that, recognizing our past—everything that’s involved in that past, the mistakes, the good, the bad, the ugly—and moving forward, creating a world community, and a place for everybody to find their home. Community is home. I am made of Indigenous blood, of African blood, of Spanish and Portuguese. There’s rape, pillaging, forcing people over from one continent to another, and even more recent than that. It’s something that we need to stop ignoring, stop pretending that it’s not real. This is something I’ve said to my guests on Looking Bilingue. But I’m also not looking at myself in the mirror everyday and saying, You come from sadness.
Now that you’re here, there’s a reason. All your features, everything, and the way that it landed. Fantastic! Let’s move forward. Let’s look at these things and make space for [what] we didn’t make space for. We can change things.
Catch up with Jade’s latest videos on Youtube by watching her interviews on ¡Looking Bilingüe!, or follow the Early Learning YouTube channel for resources and activity ideas for caregivers and teachers of children from birth to age five.
To learn more about Youth Services at the Free Library, follow @FLPYouthServices on Facebook or Instagram. Find year-round events on Free Library's events calendar.
Read A Proclamation on National Immigrant Heritage Month, 2021, from President Joe Biden.