For Mariana Bellinger, September 15 kicks off an important month: Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s not just a time for her to make more Spanish meals (although that’s on the to-do list!) but it’s a chance to delve into her roots.
“It's a reminder of where I came from, and to be grateful of how far I've come and what I've done in my life so far,” she said. “And also, it’s an opportunity to give back.”
Mariana currently works for the American Red Cross Northwest Region on Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, but she was born in Honduras. Her parents adopted her when she was just nine months old. This fact was never hidden, Mariana said. Her adoptive parents were open about her adoption and worked to stay in touch with her biological family as much as possible.
“There was a language barrier there,” Mariana said. “However, they kept in contact with my family back in Honduras for as long as possible, eventually losing contact when I was about 13, when my biological mom passed away. She was the point of contact for all of them.”
Mariana’s adoptive parents prioritized her exposure to her heritage, ensuring that she practiced Spanish in school and knew as much as possible about her biological family in Honduras.
“I think that having the culture in my day-to-day life is still something that I'm struggling with a lot of the time,” Mariana said. “It's difficult because it's hard for me to retain Spanish when I'm not around people that speak it.”
Still, Mariana says, she wants to learn more about her heritage. Shortly after her adoptive father passed away in June of 2020, Mariana had a dream about reconnecting with her biological family yet again.
“I had just changed my last name back to my actual last name on Facebook,” she said.
And that’s when, just before Thanksgiving, Mariana received a Facebook message from her biological family that included a photo of her as a baby, asking if it was her.
“It was so surprising,” she said. “It made me thankful for a lot that year.”
It was heartwarming as well, for Mariana, to be able to use her knowledge of a Red Cross program that she oversees in her day job as the Northwest Region Senior Program Specialist for International Services to find her biological family. Restoring Family Links is a program within International Services that provides free and confidential services to help families reconnect. It’s a part of the job that Mariana is especially passionate about. Now, it’s even had a personal impact.
“It's just wild to see that I took some of the things that I knew about Restoring Family Links like making sure your name was updated, making sure your birthday was updated,” she said. “I updated my hometown on Facebook and that's how they found me. It was super neat.”
Now, she’s able to talk to her two sisters and other family members regularly. One day, she hopes to visit Honduras, but she’s hoping to be more fluent in Spanish before she does.
“I want to see my niece and nephew,” Mariana said. “My older sister is married and has two kids, and my younger sister works for the Police Department, so it would be nice to go and see them in action.”
And as Mariana continues on a journey to connect with her heritage and learn about her family, she’s thankful to work within an organization that prioritizes inclusivity.
“I'm fortunate with international services as my focus right now,” she said. “I'm fortunate to be able to work alongside and multiple languages and lines of communication and things like that.”
She’s also been part of the Red Cross Latino Resource Group for about a year now.
“It’s always a great reminder of how many people are out there that are similar to me,” she said.
So, she knows, she’ll have a support system as she celebrates her roots this Hispanic Heritage Month. She’s excited to delve into her past to learn more about her present, to read up on current events in Honduras and, of course, make tamales.
During National Hispanic Heritage Month, from September 15 to October 15, the American Red Cross celebrates and honors the many Hispanic and Latino volunteers, donors and employees who make our lifesaving mission possible.