National Hispanic American Heritage Month

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National Hispanic American Heritage Month, September 15 through October 15, was established to recognize the achievements and contributions of Hispanic American champions who have inspired others to achieve success. In honor of this special month, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) celebrated our scientists and staff of Hispanic descent and highlighted how their heritage plays a role in their work.

This article is part of the September-October 2021 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

Alfredo Aretxabaleta, Claudia Flores, and Legna Torres-García of the USGS Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program each shared a little about themselves, their work, and their Hispanic heritage.  

Alfredo Aretxabaleta

Alfredo Aretxabaleta

Alfredo Aretxabaleta 

“My name is Alfredo Aretxabaleta and I am of Spanish and Basque descent. I work at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center as an Oceanographer. I am also interested in topics of diversity and mentoring in the Geosciences. 

My research mainly focuses on processes controlling water level in coastal environments including tidal effects, storm events, and sea level rise. Another important focus is the investigation of problems related to sediment transport, especially during storm events, that can affect coastal evolution. 

My Hispanic heritage has provided me with a strong connection with people that share my language and traditions. Our heritage values family ties, community, respect for others, and a sense of joy in life. All that has made me appreciate my culture and identity, and also value other peoples and their traditions. It provides a human perspective to the research we conduct at USGS.” 

Claudia Flores

Claudia Flores

Claudia Flores 

“I have been working for the U.S. Geological Survey Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center since 2006 as part of the technical staff. A huge part of the research I work in has centered in the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico. I use seismology either in processing marine multichannel seismic data or looking at earthquake data to better understand the geology of the northeastern Caribbean. I have also looked at historical documentation of felt earthquakes in the region going back to the colonial period to better understand reoccurrence rates of damaging large magnitude earthquakes than can contribute to submarine landslides and tsunamis. My latest project is now in the use of Structure-from-Motion on deep sea ROV imagery to help do underwater geology mapping.   

There is a saying in Spanish “hacer presencia”, to be present.  Working in the Natural Hazards area of the USGS, now more than ever this saying is very important for two very good reasons. First, there is no one single experience or characteristic that is a requirement to be Hispanic. Our community is diverse in backgrounds and life experiences. My upbringing and background represent only a small slice of this huge community. I was born, raised, and educated in El Paso, Texas. To be present as I do my science is to bring that perspective to the table.  

Second, our communities are disproportionately affected by climate change and natural hazards. On January 7, 2019, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake occurred just offshore southwest of the island of Puerto Rico, one day after a magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit the same area. The day after, I took a call from a concerned citizen who really needed to hear a voice on what to do and what to expect after these earthquakes. Even though I speak Spanish with a Mexican accent, the native Puerto Rican found some solace in not only hearing another Spanish speaker on the other end of the line, but also there is a Latina in there representing them and aware of their concerns and their history. It’s not just about translating our scientific work into another language. It’s also about connecting in subtle ways that go beyond in just fulfilling the need for information.” 

Legna Torres-García

Legna Torres-García 

Legna Torres-García 

"My father told me that one of his greatest moments of pride was watching me walk up the mango tree flanked steps that led to the doors of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. My father did not have the same opportunities that he provided for me, but he always impressed on me and my four sisters the virtue of an education and the opportunity it provides to decide one’s own destiny. The only gift he told me he could give me and I could keep forever was education.  

I am a Research Oceanographer and I combine observational and numerical model data over large-scale regions to understand circulation, waves, sediment transport and vulnerability of reef-lined coast to Coastal Hazards, such as storms. I am also a principal investigator on a project that focuses on coastal vulnerability assessments of local communities in Puerto Rico through focused stakeholder engagement. I am excited to add to the body of scientific knowledge on hydrodynamics and sediment transport and to consider the implications of my findings on current and future coastal vulnerability regionally and at other locations such as my native home of Puerto Rico. At the same time, I plan to continue to find opportunities to educate students and the community and inspire people to understand and engage with science. Growing up in a modest home in Puerto Rico and the love of and support of family, especially my father, have played a large part in defining who I am. I am honored to have an opportunity to use my education and local knowledge to not only give back to my community, but to help guide USGS Coastal and Ocean Science to better serve vulnerable communities in the US." 

Echoing the sentiments of U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Debb Haaland, we are grateful to have “incredible team members whose experiences growing up in Hispanic families give them perspectives that are so valuable to our Department, as we strive every day to serve everyone.”