Embracing Heritage: How Culture Influences Your Planning Work

About This Episode

In this APA podcast — part of the Planning for Equity series — Daniel Besinaiz, senior comprehensive planner at the City of Colorado Springs, shares his somewhat unexpected and personal journey on learning to celebrate and embrace his Latino heritage.

Hear how Daniel re-connected with his roots and applied inspiration from his heritage to his current planning work. Finally, hear how being a part of the Latinos and Planning Division has helped with his journey.


Episode Transcript

[00:00:03.410] - Roberta Rewers

This is an APA podcast focusing on equity and practice. I'm Roberta Rewers, senior Communications Manager for APA. Joining me today is Daniel Besinaiz, a senior comprehensive planner for the City of Colorado Springs Comprehensive Planning Division. Thanks for joining me today, Daniel.


[00:00:19.670] - Daniel Besinaiz

Thank you, I'm so happy to be here.


[00:00:21.080] - Roberta Rewers

Wonderful. You recently spoke at NPC 23. About every planner is influenced by their own personal experiences as well as those influencing the communities in which they work. How did you start to kind of connect those dots?


[00:00:36.650] - Daniel Besinaiz

Well, I think for me, and that's kind of what my session was about, is my own journey, connecting with my Mexican American roots and having the ability to go to Mexico and kind of explore the urban areas there. When I gained that knowledge, when I had those experiences, I came back to the United States and I had all these new perspectives, and that's kind of how it came. So it wasn't very planned out. It was a very organic experience where suddenly I had these new thoughts and ideas with an extra layer of pride, of course, because I'm so proud of my heritage. That's kind of how that intersection came to be because I had those experiences and those thoughts that not everybody around me necessarily has.


[00:01:22.810] - Roberta Rewers

Tell us a little bit about you mentioned going to Mexico and kind of reconnecting. Obviously, it had a significant impact for when you came back to your community. But what struck you as kind of the qualities or characteristics that you saw there that you work to try and bring either into your community or just in general?


[00:01:42.750] - Daniel Besinaiz

So there are a lot of lessons that I've learned with the built environment in Mexico. One of them is kind of the process of the built environment there and how it comes to be. They don't have the same organizations that we do. The last time I went there, I spoke at a conference, or I guess two times ago, I spoke at a conference in Pachuca. And when I was explaining to them that I was a city planner, then I worked for a city or, you know, municipality, they didn't really understand the concept of that because they don't have that there. A lot of their urbanism work there is through the private firm, either architecture or engineering or anything along those lines. And so I think one of the lessons that I kind of take back here is all the different ways that you could possibly approach urban planning. Obviously, the work that we do in the United States is also very interdisciplinary. A lot of planners work with engineers and architects and developers on a day to day basis. But a lot of the work that they do is also really urbanism too, and it can create these fantastic vibrant, lively cities like you see in central Mexico.


[00:02:56.470] - Roberta Rewers

What makes the cities so vibrant? What do you see as the reason.


[00:03:01.460] - Daniel Besinaiz

Why I think and it's so funny coming and saying this as an established planner, but I think one of the things that makes them so vibrant there is the informality of the planning. Like they don't have design standards. They don't have, I don't know, sidewalk standards, which is not a good thing. But having that informality really creates this mismatch of buildings and people and different levels of affordability depending on who developed that land, in what capacity, because there's a lot of informal development as well, obviously, in Latin America. So I think it's just that contrast of everything that could be there. They don't really have zoning, so you see a lot of people who live in their shops and who just walk outside of their door in the morning and set up shop right in front of their house. And it's just that ability. It's almost so free, which has positives negatives. Like I said, the sidewalk thing is not ADA compliant. Of course they don't have ADA in Mexico because it's the American disabilities. But it's not an informality, I think, that really makes it vibrant.


[00:04:19.010] - Roberta Rewers

When you visit, what kind of inspires you that you are like, oh, I want to bring this back to my planning job.


[00:04:29.190] - Daniel Besinaiz

I think something that really is instilled in me every time I go there, especially most of the time that I go to Mexico, I fly in and out of Mexico City. So I spent a lot of time there. It's the biggest city in North America by population, it's huge. And so it's really difficult sometimes to bridge the connections between Mexico City and where I work now in Colorado Springs because the scale of the city is so different. However, there are so many lessons to be learned there that can easily be brought to Colorado Springs. For example, there's this one famous street in Mexico City. It's kind of a wealthier side of town, a lot of tourists, it's called Pazada la Reforma. And every weekend they shut down that street and just have it for pedestrians and bikes. And I think that that's so cool. And it's just an easy way for people to go out and see this normally car dominated street with pedestrians and they can just walk around and there's a lot of bikes and there's families that are rollerblading down the street and it's just so fun. And so it's things like that that I wanted to take back to Colorado and say, we can do this here.


[00:05:44.030] - Daniel Besinaiz

We have a very busy kind of state highway. It's kind of boulevard style through downtown Colorado Springs. And I think that if we could close that off and just have that experience so that people know, oh, this building that's there and this mural is here, and just point out all the different things that make Colorado springs special, but you can see it instead of just driving past it and forgetting it.


[00:06:03.830] - Roberta Rewers

Taking a little bit more time to enjoy your surroundings.


[00:06:06.470] - Daniel Besinaiz

Instead of like getting out of the red light, you see the beautiful mirror.


[00:06:08.940] - Roberta Rewers

Right. Focus. Go. Go. Right, exactly. And that's interesting because you mentioned a little bit about kind of reconnecting with the sights and the sounds and the smells of the built environment, which has gotten me thinking, how do you kind of pause to pay attention to that again, because we are kind of a fast society.


[00:06:27.940] - Daniel Besinaiz

Yes, we're very fast paced. And I have a hard time every time I go to Mexico because of that. I'm up and ready to go in the morning and the coffee shop doesn't open until nine and I'm thinking, what is that all about?


[00:06:38.130] - Roberta Rewers

No coffee before nine is not enough, right?


[00:06:40.910] - Daniel Besinaiz

Actually, I don't drink coffee because I'm so energetic as it is. That coffee would just send me off the rails. But it's still that thought, right, where I can't really go downstairs to get a pastry or whatever because it's not open yet. But one of the ways back to your question of how I really immerse myself in that is, well, one is kind of organic because I don't like I spoke in my session. I'm coming to I shouldn't say coming to terms because that sounds negative, but I'm coming to terms, for lack of a better term, with my heritage. So when I go there, I'm very excited. And it's more of an emotional process for me too, because I'm seeing these sights and sounds where I'm like, oh, I was disconnected. And I was kind of ashamed for a long time of this part of myself. And so when I go there now, I'm looking around thinking, how could I have been ashamed of my heritage? And I know that there's outside forces that caused me to be that way. It wasn't like I just woke up one day and thought, oh my gosh, I don't want to be Mexican.


[00:07:41.560] - Daniel Besinaiz

It wasn't that. There were conversations that you hear in the media and that representation in Hollywood, for example, and you don't see yourself, so it's difficult to be proud. So when I go to Mexico now and I kind of see all the vibrancy and I smell the food and I hear the music and I see people laughing and dancing and saying hi to their neighbors, I'm like, I almost can't not I can't ignore it. It's impossible. It's so beautiful. And when I take people to visit, they do the same thing. They're like, wow, this is so amazing. Everybody's so friendly. Of course, Mexico has its positive and negatives just like anywhere else, but it's so hard to not pay attention to just how lively everything is, especially in Mexico City.


[00:08:31.160] - Roberta Rewers

How do you bring that kind of you talked a little bit about an organic experience. How do you bring that back with you? How do you not disconnect from that?


[00:08:40.840] - Daniel Besinaiz

I think one of the ways I do that, which has been quite a growing experience for myself is to kind of have a little bit more of a backbone with my pride. There's a lot of misconceptions about Latin America, a lot of fear by a lot of fear in Americans about Latin America and what goes on there. And so a lot of times when I come back, I really stand firm in my pride. People are like, well, did you feel unsafe? And I say, Well, I mean, I felt unsafe in the same way that I would in any big city in the US. Or did you see this or did you see that? Bad things? And I'm like, no, I don't know. It's not something that you see every day. Just like if you were to go to New York or Denver or Chicago or wherever, it's not like you're walking through a war zone, but you see media a lot of times. It's so negative of these places that it changes that perception. So when I come back, I really am so proud. And I just say I'm very honest, and I say there were areas, because I keep talking about it mexico City, that aren't the nicest place, and they're not really a place that tourists probably want to go if they aren't familiar with the language or the people or anything like that.


[00:10:02.050] - Daniel Besinaiz

But having those conversations and saying, yes, there are negatives, just like there are in the United States, but it's also so beautiful and so fun and so lively. That's how I kind of maintained that.


[00:10:15.490] - Roberta Rewers

That makes a lot of sense because it tends to be the negative stories that are elevated and featured over and over and over again. So it creates that kind of movie in your head of like, oh, can't go there, right? Can you talk a little bit about your reconnection with the heritage has been a journey. How did you start doing that? And how are you seeing that influence and a positive aspect of your work that you're doing as a planner in the United States?


[00:10:40.590] - Daniel Besinaiz

Yes. So, again, this is all an organic process. I didn't wake up one day thinking, oh, my gosh, you know what? Today I'm so proud to be Mexican. That's not really how it worked. I wish that it was. I wish I wasn't even disconnected in the first place. But such is life. I have the immense privilege of having very fair skin. I know that that has made very direct, discriminatory comments to me at a minimal level compared to other Latinos that don't have fair skin. But the reason that I'm saying that is because I grew up in Southern California. I went to the University of Arizona. And in both those places, there are so many people that are mixed with Latino, especially of Mexican heritage. And it was normal to me. I could kind of blend in there or pass as white because of my fair skin. And so comments were never really made. When I went to grad school in Wisconsin, that was when I first realized that maybe I had a different heritage than the other white people that I claim to really be like. And it's through subtle things that I noticed first.


[00:11:51.250] - Daniel Besinaiz

I moved there, and in the winter everybody lost their tan and I didn't. And so it was things like that and just this feeling that I'm eating different foods at home than I did than my peers in Wisconsin did. I was making enchiladas, and I didn't have to worry about it being too spicy, for example. And so it was that kind of first process of seeing myself as a little bit different than the heavily white community in Madison. And from there I really started to explore it. And I had some experiences while living in Wisconsin, Minnesota that helped. I don't like to say helped because it makes it sound like a good thing. There were some really not great experiences where people said some really hurtful things, noticing that I looked different for whatever reason. I have dark hair, I have dark eyes. I didn't lose my tan in the winter. Just these little things where I had never been different before, looked different before, and now I did in Wisconsin. So unfortunately, because people were saying those things that were super hurtful, it was almost kind of good for me in the long run.


[00:13:12.130] - Daniel Besinaiz

And I really don't like saying that because that made me to explore, okay, well, I am Mexican. And so even though I had this almost kind of like internalized racism from, like I said earlier, the media and everything before I started to explore more of like, what does that even mean? What does it mean to be Mexican? And that's how kind of the whole reconnecting story started.


[00:13:37.350] - Roberta Rewers

You are currently on the board of the Latinos and Planning Division. How do you see your connection with that division helping and kind of furthering your kind of connection to your heritage and your work as a planner?


[00:13:51.920] - Daniel Besinaiz

Yeah, it's been huge. It's been really huge. So when I was in Wisconsin and I was kind of going through this, like, what does it mean to Mexican idea and kind of realizing who I was and who my family was or is. I met Dr. Edna Ledesma. Now she's Dr. Edna Ledesma Eli, but she started as a professor my first semester no, my last semester at UW. And we ran into each other at APA San Francisco. It's this fantastic story of just what a small world. And she sits next to me and gives me a big hug, and she's like, oh, I'm so happy to see you. And I was so happy to see her too. And she said, are you going to the Latinos and planning division business meeting? And I said, oh, no, I'm not a member of the Latinos and Planning Division. And she kind of looked at me sideways and said, why not? And I said, because I don't know. In my head I'm thinking because I've never seen myself as Latino. But I'm not going to say that out loud because is that offensive? I don't know. And I'm thinking about all these questions and then she said it, aren't you Latino?


[00:15:07.550] - Daniel Besinaiz

And I said, yes. She said, you need to go. And I had other plans that night, but for whatever reason I decided that I should go. And so I went. And I was so nervous and I thought it was almost like imposter syndrome with heritage. I was like, am I Mexican enough to go to this? And are they going to point at me and say get out? Or I don't know what could happen. But I walked in, they were super welcoming. They had announced sometime in the meeting that there was a student representative position open for the Midwest. And I was like, well, I go to Wisconsin, I could maybe do that. And I didn't ask. I just walked up to Edna after the meeting and I said, what does that entail? What are the responsibilities for that? And she said, I'll email you. Great. So I get back to Wisconsin and a couple of weeks later I get this email saying, congrats, you're the student representative for the Midwest. And I said, I did not agree to that. I just asked what the responsibilities were. But it's been such a fantastic experience from then I obviously had to join the division because I was a representative on their board.


[00:16:13.400] - Daniel Besinaiz

So, Edna, if you're listening to this, I know you suckered me into that, but it's been fantastic because then when I graduated, I moved on to the communications chair and just having this community of Latinos, and a lot of them are like me. They aren't sure what it means to be Latino, or if you're supposed to wear your flag on your back every day, or what does it mean to showcase pride and to put that experience into your work. And so every month it's fantastic. We have these monthly meetings and everybody gets to talk about whatever, whether it's happy things like the work that they're doing or the communities that they serve. And if it's a Latino community, we all get even more excited. But then also the bad things too. We're like, oh, someone talked to me really negatively today, or I struggled helping an applicant speak with whatever they needed to do while trying to speak Spanish. And my Spanish wasn't working out and I got flustered and whatever it is. And so it's just lap. That division has been such a savior and a really fun way for me to explore my heritage while working on the things I love to work on the most, which is urban planning, of course.


[00:17:24.110] - Roberta Rewers

And you mentioned you started as a student, so you saw there is a great connection there as a student looking to kind of get into the planning field as well.


[00:17:33.380] - Daniel Besinaiz

Absolutely, yes. And I still hold strong on that strength in Lap. Now when people ask what's the benefit of joining with humans and planning? And I'm very honest with them and I say professionally, when you're already postgrad you're in the field, the benefits that you get aren't necessarily as plentiful as you do as a student in the division. And one of the reasons for that is because the Hispanic or Latino demographic in the United States is the fastest growing. And one of the reasons for that is that we stereotypically have a lot of kids, we have big families, and so there's a lot of planning students who are Latino and not a lot in the professional field because we hadn't had that representation back 1015 years ago. So right now our division, I want to say, is about 60, 70% students. And we just do as much as we can just to help them build resumes and cover letters and how to network and networking with us and anything that we can think of to kind of build up that support system for students. And I was also someone who took advantage of that while I was a student.


[00:18:49.130] - Daniel Besinaiz

And I think that we do a really good job now of continuing that for the next generation.


[00:18:53.130] - Roberta Rewers

That's fantastic. A lot of the helping, the next iteration of planners coming forward, what obstacles you talked a little bit about, unfortunately, having personal experiences with negative comments and that sort of thing. What obstacles do you see for planners moving forward and trying to maintain that connection to their heritage, working with their communities that maybe might not look like them or have the same characteristics of kind of the free form, vibrant culture that you mentioned about Mexico City, right?


[00:19:23.990] - Daniel Besinaiz

I think it's so funny because we had a lot of jokes, I think, when I was coming into the field about checking off the diversity box, right? Like, did they hire me because I have a great resume or do they hire me because they needed to put a Latino hire on their HR pages or whatever? And as I've worked in my career, I'm kind of starting to change my thought and perspective on that because at some point, if you're not getting the representation that your community deserves, you almost have to check that box the first time. And even though it's kind of cringey that first time where you're like, I need to hire a representative person of the community, it starts to become more authentic after that because one checked box means that maybe next time there'll be another checkbox and another checkbox, and that's how you start to build that representation.


[00:20:25.630] - Roberta Rewers

That's an interesting perspective and one that I'm sure a lot of communities haven't because that is it's like, well, do you do it because you want to show you've got diversity? And there's been a lot of conversations about planners should be representing the community that they're working in and to get that kind of flow in, priming the pump forward, keeping in mind our time, because I would love to keep chatting with you. What recommendations do you have for planners who are maybe starting that process of kind of reconnecting with their heritage and bringing it into their work, or planners who maybe have been completely disconnected? How do they kind of maybe start to dig into that?


[00:21:02.640] - Daniel Besinaiz

I think one of the ways to combat what is oftentimes really intense imposter syndrome, not only in the field, but also with your heritage or your story or whatever it is you're trying to reconnect with, is recognizing that that lives within you. And there are a lot of experiences that I'm sure that you've had where you didn't even realize that that was a part of your heritage, because to you it's normal. And that's kind of my story too, where I wasn't saying that all these things in my Mexican heritage didn't exist. I just didn't label them as Mexican because I didn't know that they were Mexican. And so when people are kind of starting on these reconnecting journeys, I always just say, try to just try to be as authentic as you can with yourself. Don't try to force an experience that you didn't have. And when I talk about Latin America and my heritage in Mexico, there are a lot of times where I know what has happened through the types of experiences that people have experienced, I guess by my peers. I know that that happens, but it's never happened to me. And so just because now I'm reconnecting with my heritage does not mean that I had those experiences.


[00:22:20.080] - Daniel Besinaiz

I just know that it's prevalent in my community. I have an experience on myself. And so there's this self awareness part that's really important because you don't want to get to the point where you're appropriating a culture. That's not the goal of reconnecting with your heritage. It's coming to terms with who you are seeing, how that affects you, seeing the like I said in my session, the sights, sounds, smells, all those things that make you feel at home, make you feel like you are a community. That's the part that you really want to hone in on when you're planning for communities that are just like you or maybe any other minority community.


[00:22:54.390] - Roberta Rewers

Thanks so much for your time today, Daniel. I know you're very active on Twitter, so where can listeners find you?


[00:23:01.740] - Daniel Besinaiz

Yes, I am very active on Twitter. You can find me at atcityplanners C-I-T-Y-P-L-A-N-N-E-R-D. My name is Daniel Besinaiz. You can also just find me that way. And that's about it.


[00:23:16.260] - Roberta Rewers

Thanks Daniel. For more information about the Latinos and Planning Division, visit Planning.org/ Divisions/latinos. And to hear more APA podcasts, visit us at planning.org/podcast. You can also find the APA Podcast on Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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