Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month with Natalie Vega O’Neil, Junior Achievement of Washington’s President & CEO

Tell us a little bit about your cultural heritage as a Latinx American.
I was born in East Chicago, Indiana, at the same hospital where my mom was born. My grandfather was born in the city of General Terán in Monterrey, Mexico, and immigrated to the US with an 8th-grade education. He later married my grandmother from Texas and settled in NW Indiana in 1920. Together, they raised nine children with a strong focus on family and the importance of education. Growing up surrounded by a large, loving Mexican-American family (I have 22 first cousins) enabled me to deeply embed my culture into the fabric of who I am. My culture is a cornerstone of my identity, and exposing my children to our Mexican heritage has been a priority. Our traditions and values are carried on generationally through cooking, celebrations, clothing, and music.

What is your favorite holiday tradition?
My family celebrates The Day of the Dead (el Día de Los Muertos). During this Mexican holiday, families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, and drink, celebrated annually from October 31-November 2. According to tradition, the spirits of our ancestors can rejoin their families for 24 hours. People leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes. My children make our ofrenda every year in preparation for celebrating our loved ones who are no longer with us.

What is your favorite Mexican drink and/or dish?
I must say tacos because we named our new puppy after our favorite Mexican food. My grandmother’s taco recipe is still what my entire family uses.

Do you have a favorite place to visit in Mexico?
I lived in Mexico in college and was able to travel the country extensively. My favorite cities are Taxco, known for its silver jewelry, and Oaxaca, known for ancestral-based crafts like its unique black pottery.

How did your heritage shape your career path in early childhood education and nonprofit work?
My extended family values and honors children. Being raised in this environment inspired me to be an advocate for children and their healthy development.

How can we learn more about Mexican culture during this heritage month?
So many resources have already been shared this month via our staff newsletter, and every streaming service is marketing its “Hispanic Heritage Month” content. From Ugly Betty to the History Channel, you can indeed find whatever interests you when it comes to the beautifully rich Mexican culture.

Natalie Vega O’Neil is the President & CEO of Junior Achievement of Washington, a nonprofit dedicated to providing financial literacy education to young people. She is the first female and person of color to lead this agency in its 69-year history.

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