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NBC News producer on her Hispanic heritage: 'You can't put us in a box'

"There are so many different cultures within the Hispanic culture."
Collage of family photos on green background
NBC News producer Katerina Sardi (third from right in the first photo; with her hands in the air in the second photo) told TODAY that she was proud to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and honor her family's roots in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina.TODAY Illustration / Courtesy Katerina Sardi
/ Source: TODAY

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the months of September and October. For more, head here.

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Katerina Sardi is an associate producer at NBC News based in Miami. Her family is from multiple countries in South America. This is a conversation with her about what it means to be Hispanic.

TODAY: You were born and raised in Miami but your family is from South America. Can you tell me more about that?

Katerina Sardi: My dad is from Venezuela and my mom was born in Brazil, but her family is from Argentina. Growing up, we experienced a lot of different foods and cultures all under this "Hispanic" umbrella. To me, what makes me Hispanic is that exploration of different cultures.

My parents came to the United States when they were around 14 years old and met in high school. They fell in love and got married. My sisters and I are first-generation Americans, and I have a lot of pride in that.

Katerina Sardi with her mother and sisters on a trip to Brazil in 1999. Courtesy Katerina Sardi

What was it like being from these different countries and also growing up in Miami, which has its own large Hispanic population?

That definitely played a huge part in my upbringing. I associated largely with Cuba even though there's no Cuban blood in my family, because of growing up in Miami. I love a good pastelito de guava y queso,which is a Cuban pastry. My fiancé is Cuban American; my best friend is Cuban American. The Cuban culture influenced my upbringing because of living in Miami.

I'm grateful for that, too. It gives you another perspective on what it means to be Hispanic.

Katerina Sardi's cousins (left) sit with her mother (center) and sister, with Sardi on the far right, during a trip to Tucuman, Argentina, in 1996. Courtesy Katerina Sardi

Going back to your multicultural background, were there moments where foods or traditions from two or more cultures were melded together?

That's something that happens every day in my life. My mom's heart is in Argentina, but the Brazilian culture played a very large factor in our lives growing up. She would always try to teach us Portugese.

In terms of food, my dad will make Venezuelan arepas, which are like a cornmeal bread or cake. My grandparents on my mom's side immigrated from Lebanon and Syria to Argentina when they were young, so my grandmother has the Argentinian influence and the Brazilian influence, but she also hasn't forgotten how to make Arab cuisine. She makes grape leaves (we call them niños envueltos) and sfiha (also called lahm bi ajin in Arab),which is a bread with meat on top. They're delicious.

Katerina Sardi's maternal grandmother, known affectionately as Vovó, which means grandmother in Portuguese, makes Lebanese grape leaves. Sardi's family refers to them as niños envueltos.Courtesy Katerina Sardi

For the World Cup, we always have the country's flags hanging in our house. For Copa America this summer, the finals were Brazil versus Argentina and my mom — you could see it in her face — was so torn between who she wanted to win. She was rooting for both countries, but she started crying when Argentina won, because it was so exciting. It was nice to see her that proud of her country.

Do you see food as a way to connect with your heritage?

One of the biggest aspects of being Hispanic is family life, and family dinners are a big deal, so food plays a really key part. In my Venezuelan family, one of the traditional meals we eat during the holidays, specifically at Christmas, is called hallacas. Every year, two weeks before Christmas, the entire family gets together and we kind of form an assembly line. Someone makes the dough and someone rolls the dough and folds it into a banana leaf and someone's tying the wrapping and someone's counting them to make sure that we have enough for the entire family. On Christmas we boil them and eat them.

Food provides comfort and tradition. It ties people back to their home country and gives them a sense of comfort, and it keeps the traditions alive beyond borders.

Katerina Sardi (right), her paternal grandmother (left) and other family members make hallacas in 2000. Sardi noted that her grandmother passed away in 2015, but the family still keeps "her tradition alive today." Courtesy Katerina Sardi

What is it like to visit South America, knowing your family came from there?

It's amazing. As a child, we had a decent upbringing in terms of material things, but my parents made a point of saying, "No, you're not going to get the fanciest brands of clothes and things for school, and we're not going to live in the biggest house on the block, so that we can travel.” That mentality of saving for travel and exploring their cultures and their home countries was an amazing part of growing up.

I think my first flight to South America was when I was two months old. I was born and went straight to Caracas to visit my grandparents, who were living there at the time.

Brazil was the country that we would go to almost every summer. Interacting with my cousins and the food and the lifestyle is something that not every young American kid gets. My siblings and I were so fortunate to get that experience.

Katerina Sardi and her mother (left) stand with her father and sister (right) in her grandparents' backyard in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1992. Courtesy Katerina Sardi

Sometimes it seems as though people lump all of South America together as one country with one experience, and that's obviously not true. What is it like dealing with that stereotype?

It just doesn't make sense. My background is so diverse. That speaks to the broader Hispanic population, too, which is so diverse. You can't confine us to one definition of what it means to be Hispanic. There are similarities across the board, but no two cultures or countries are the same. We're all very different and I think that's what makes this so special. You can't put us in a box. There are so many different cultures within the Hispanic culture.

Katerina Sardi and her family visit Peru in 2018. Courtesy Katerina Sardi

We're all very proud of where we come from and our respective countries, and when it's time for us to come together, we do. Like when "In the Heights" was released — I’m not Puerto Rican or Dominican, but I still felt so prideful to watch that movie, knowing that we're being represented somehow on the big screen. I think that was amazing. We're all different, but there's still that brotherhood or sisterhood of being Hispanic.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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