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Honoring Hispanic Heritage Month: Conversations To Close the Gap

By Rebecca Colone & Daniella Munoz

September 30, 2021

Architect Carlos Rios studying in his field at his Alma Mater the University of Florida.

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 to October 15 in alignment with several national days of independence for Latin American countries. During this time, a spotlight is shined on Hispanic culture and traditions as well as contributions Hispanic and Latinx Americans have made throughout history and in the present day.

This year’s theme, “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope,” reminds us that we are stronger together, especially when we lean into resilience and hope—two characteristics that are categorically representative of Hispanic culture.

With this theme in mind, we set out on a journey to learn more about Hispanic and Latinx representation in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.

As two Hispanic early career professionals in the AEC industry, this seemed like a great time to research and share what we learned in the hopes that it helps foster a greater understanding of and appreciation for the unique perspective and value Hispanic and Latinx people bring to the industry and world.

Associate Daniella Munoz (on right)  attending Womanhood art show of Cuban artist Claudia Guerra (in middle).

Associate Rebecca Colone poses next to an photograph representing her Puerto Rican heritage.

 

Discovering a Key Issue

We identified the work of Kendall A. Nicholson, Ed.D., Assoc. AIA, NOMA, LEED GA, the Director of Research and Information for the ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture). In fall 2020, Dr. Nicholson published a research report titled, "Where Are My People? Hispanic and Latinx in Architecture."

In the report, he reveals explanations and barriers related to the lived experience of Hispanic and Latinx students across the architecture discipline.

His research gets to the root of the issue with one question: Why is it that the largest community of color in the U.S. still makes up such a small percentage of the profession?

While the answer to that question isn’t so simple, the numbers represent a clear breakdown in education. In his research, Dr. Nicholson found that 19.5% of college students in architecture are Hispanic or Latinx people. From that group, 17.2% graduate with a degree in architecture. And after that, only 8.5% become architecture professionals.

Schools are currently enrolling Hispanic/Latinx students at adequate numbers in comparison to the population, but the profession simply doesn’t reflect that.

“My goal in this research is making the ‘invisible,’ ‘visible’ and I want people to feel like they belong in the profession even if the numbers are stark,” said Dr. Nicholson. “I hope this galvanizes the support for authentic, deep, organizational change in architecture and design.”

 

Defining the Barriers 

Much of the issue can be traced back to a rocky history. According to Dr. Nicholson’s research, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans became a part of the U.S. through war and the concession of land. And Salvadorans and Cubans – the next two largest Latinx populations – have largely come to the U.S. through strained terms as well, typically as a refuge from communism or natural disaster.

It’s no surprise that reidentifying and securing a sense of community is an integral part of life and success for these populations. But Dr. Nicholson’s qualitative research found those cultural characteristics are a barrier when it comes to the architecture profession.

Responses from research participants overwhelmingly cited that the needs for “community” and “family” were important to them, but were often devalued across the discipline.

He discovered that many Hispanic/Latinx people found it difficult to keep a work/life balance and that isolation from their families contributed to the difficulty of maintaining a sense of community – especially within larger institutions and traditional workplaces.

While an engineer at RS&H, Miguel Lugo, a Puerto Rican native, also found community to be one of the main criteria when looking for a master’s program in the AEC discipline.

“I chose the University of Florida because environment matters when it comes to achieving success,” said Miguel. “I found the university had a large international population, Hispanic/Latinx population, and support programs in place for minority students.”

While he was the only Hispanic student in his specific program, he felt connected with others similar to him who understood what it was like being bilingual or from another country, which made a huge difference in his education and career.

Transportation Engineer Miguel Lugo posing by his computer while working.

Underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latinx professionals in the architecture discipline coupled with the costs associated with education makes the complex issue of access even more difficult to overcome.

Carlos Rios, an RS&H architectural associate and recent University of Florida graduate, found this phenomenon apparent, especially when reflecting on his peers’ sentiments during school and post-graduation.

“Working at a young age was necessary for families to ‘get by’ financially in many communities, including my own,” said Carlos. “If you wanted to attend college and study architecture, your working responsibilities would have to be juggled with additional schoolwork.”

Further challenges came from the fact that exposure to AEC-related careers and the possibilities that lied in that industry weren’t a top priority at many schools.

However, once enrolled in an architecture program, the barrier to success still exists.

“A few other Hispanic students and I came from low-income communities,” said Carlos. “Even with help from scholarships and grants, it was always a significant burden to have to set aside money each semester to complete a single project in our architecture courses.”

Architect Carlos Rios working on architecture assignment with peers at the University of Florida.

 

Finding Hope and Inspiration 

Despite hardships, Hispanic/Latinx respondents of the survey found inspiration to succeed through their strong ties to family among other sources of hope for the future.

In his research, Dr. Nicholson included a study showing that while White Americans considered educational success and hard work as a means of gaining independence from their families, Hispanic/Latinx teens considered high levels of achievement necessary as a way to take care of their families.

“The few Hispanic students that I did attend college with were focused on creating better lives for themselves, more opportunities for their eventual families, and to one day be able to give back to communities like the ones where many of us grew up,” said Carlos. “All of this in an effort to help others ‘break the cycle’ of challenges a lot of Hispanic youth continue to face.”

Many Hispanic/Latinx students act as “cultural liaisons,” carrying with them a spirit of pride to overcome and prosper in the profession on behalf of their larger communities.

 

Closing the Gap

We began this process searching for some larger way to honor Hispanic Heritage Month, knowing that our own industry would be a great place to start the discussion.

These important conversations have started, but we know this is only the beginning of a greater shift.

"To put it simply, I want to see the architects serve communities equitably,” said Dr. Nicholson. “I want to see an architecture that supports the common good, that designs for historically marginalized communities, and that honors and respects our differences.”

At RS&H, as we continue the conversation and look for new opportunities to engage in Hispanic Heritage Month and other cultural celebrations, we know that more representation in the industry starts with creating a pathway for entry.

We invite and encourage others in our industry to continue these conversations to close the gap, with growing hope toward our future.

Thank you to Dr. Nicholson, Miguel, and Carlos. Your perspectives and experiences are similar to our own, and we are honored that you gave us permission to share them.

Topics: Insights, Architecture, Our People, Our Culture, Diversity & Inclusion

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About the Author

Rebecca is a corporate communications specialist with a love for good stories – and RS&H is full of them. Daniella is a marketing coordinator with a fondness for sharing stories and developing marketing communications.

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