From the arepas of Colombia to the cereal of the United States, Juana Hernandez has found her stride in both cultures


Juana Hernandez

Freshman Juana Hernandez has lived in both Colombia and the United States, and she has immersed herself in each culture.

In the movie Encanto, freshman Juana Hernandez was pleased to have only found one inaccuracy of Colombian culture: the representation of coffee.

“[Encanto] was actually pretty accurate,” Juana said. “The only thing that wasn’t accurate was that scene when Mirabel tells the little kid ‘That’s why coffee is for grownups!’ You’ll never find a grownup saying that to kids. My cousin, since she was two years old, has been drinking café con leche . . . That’ll just be our morning drink with our breakfast.” 

With the coffee, mornings are almost always accompanied by a large Colombian breakfast, similar to how the movie Encanto depicted their meals around the table. Juana enjoys arepas in the morning with butter, salt, and egg; no matter what the breakfast is in Colombia, it needs to contain enough sustenance to conquer the day. 

These large meals are unlike the quick daily breakfast preparations in the United States; nonetheless, Juana has quickly adapted to both cultures with her unique upbringing. Growing up in many different houses, Juana has moved not just to new cities, but between the countries of Colombia and the United States seven times. 

It’s like everybody feels a sense of community. In Colombia, you don’t need to know someone personally to feel their sadness or help them out.

— Juana Hernandez

One of the biggest challenges with all this movement came in kindergarten when Juana was thrown into a classroom of English-speaking students after solely learning Spanish at home. 

“I didn’t know any English,” Juana said, “so when I got to kindergarten, it was basically, ‘pick it up.’ In kindergarten, I was learning the ABCs, but also comparing that to Spanish. By first grade, I was fluent. The good thing about learning on the run with real-life people is that you learn slang and everything instead of in a classroom.”

After jumping over this initial hurdle, Juana spent the next four to five years of her childhood in Grand Haven, Michigan, where she was immersed in the customs and culture of the country. Through spending years in the United States, English essentially became her first language.

This would have been a welcome realization, except when Juana was eight years old, she had to say goodbye to her home in Grand Haven and “hola” once again to her birth country in South America, where she was then treated as a gringa: a slang term for a native English speaker from an Anglo-American region.

“Back in Colombia, the weirdest thing happened,” Juana said. “I basically became a full-on gringa. When I got there, everybody was trying to hug me and touch me and everything. I was like, ‘no,’ because the first thing you learn in kindergarten and first grade [is to] keep your hands to yourself and have your bubble space. I was like, ‘Mom, they’re invading my bubble space, what am I doing?’”

Adapting to a new environment once again, Juana was able to re-learn Spanish and bask in the Columbian sun. There are certain aspects of the nation that Juana could never take for granted, the biggest one being the kindness and companionship felt within the community.

“The people there could be total strangers,” Juana said. “If somebody sees you crying, [they’ll go] up to you and say, ‘Oh my God, are you okay?’ It’s like everybody feels a sense of community. In Colombia, you don’t need to know someone personally to feel their sadness or help them out.” 

On the other hand, her life in the United States is vastly different with the immense number of people in high school. The variety of classmates is a highlight as Juana gets to transition through a range of classrooms and extracurriculars. 

“In Colombia, the schools work so that you’re in one classroom,” Juana said, “and [those] are the people you’re usually with until you graduate. Everybody knows everybody, but here, I meet new people 24/7. It’s so fun to meet new people every day. It’s always a surprise for me; someone new can be a new friend.”

Thanks to Juana’s social persona, there’s never a lack of excitement in each home. Juana says that she now feels a sense of belonging everywhere, but is often known as “Miss Colombia” to her friends in Grand Rapids, never turning down the opportunity to share tidbits from her Colombian heritage.

“Honestly, I’m like a walking culture lesson for [my friends],” Juana said. “They’ll be talking to me, and I’ll randomly bring up some Colombian culture, and I’ll say ‘remember that!’ and they will.”