Reflecting on Hispanic Heritage Month

Did you know that September 15th through October 15th is Hispanic Heritage Month? Like other “monthly” celebrations, this one first began as a week-long acknowledgment of one group of “Americans” in an attempt to raise everyone’s awareness of their contributions1. Over time, these seven days grew to thirty days, but through the quirkiness of history and legislation, Hispanic Heritage Month began in the middle of one month and ended in the middle of the next.

The terms Hispanic, Latino, Spanish and now, Latinx, all describe a subset of people, and I have heard them used interchangeably, however, they describe different groups, depending on who you ask. There are many articles available2 that explain the difference between these terms, but a short version of the difference is that Latinos come from Latin America (and include Mexico, Central America, Brazil, and all the Caribbean Islands), but not Spain3. Hispanics, on the other hand, all hail from any predominantly Spanish speaking country. Technically speaking, only Spaniards are “Spanish”, though in the US the term is often assigned to those of us who speak the language. Latinx4 is a new term being used here and there in an effort to create a gender-neutral term for the group now called Latinos or Latinas, though not everyone is on board.

While all these terms may be useful for agencies tracking data, they do little to express the diversity of the individual people they are supposed to represent. Take the term “American”, for example, an expression favored by US citizens. Everyone in the Western Hemisphere who hails from one of the Americas (South, Central, North) is an “American”. That means all the people, everyone from the Bering Strait near the northern tip of Alaska to the hellish Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina; they are all “Americans”.

Of course, what I am talking about above is more a question of semantics than identity. But personal identity is created by the culture that surrounds it, and the tools are language, media, and representation. For me, what these kinds of monthly celebrations (Black History, Hispanic Heritage and Women’s History Months) remind me of, is that there has long been a dominant narrative of exclusion. We have been told a story about who we are, where we come from and how we got here, that doesn’t quite include all the actors.

True, some of this has been corrected since the Civil Rights, counterculture and Women’s movements have brought to light the undeniable contributions of previously unacknowledged individuals. But we are still a long way from truly rewriting our collective history as one that includes all our voices. Perhaps this will always remain impossible, since we seem fixated on what makes us different, rather than what binds us in common.

The truth is that each one of us is a complex and dynamic mixture of multiple identities. We spend our lives forming and reforming ourselves, attempting to find some whole costume, some complete self that feels unified and true. We all have racial, regional, religious, national, linguistic, sexual, political selves that help to describe us, but can never fully define us.

Hispanic Heritage Month is a thirty-day period meant to recognize the contributions of the Spanish speaking populations to the history of the United States. It is a long, often contentious history, marked by division and focused on our differences. Especially in the age of Trump, being a Hispanic or Latino in the United States has meant being reminded of our “outsider” status. But we are not outsiders and we are not minorities.  The Spanish speaking people of the Americas have been here just as long as their English, French, Portuguese and Dutch-speaking European counterparts. In fact, the western half of the United States testifies to this with places named Los Angeles (the angels), Nevada (snowy), Colorado (reddish), Montana (mountain), Rio Grande (big river), Palo Alto (high pole) and on and on.

The monthly celebrations started in the 60s and 70s were meant to serve as national reminders that our country had been built by a patchwork of people from all over the world. It was meant to disrupt the narrative that “true Americans” arrived on the Mayflower, had ties to the thirteen colonies and spoke English. There are still more stories that need to be told, more voices that need to be heard, and most of all a message that needs to be spread: The “American Dream” belongs to all of us.

References:

  1. https://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/15032398402
  2. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/difference-between-hispanic-latino-and-spanish_n_55a7ec20e4b0c5f0322c9e44
  3. https://www.britannica.com/story/whats-the-difference-between-hispanic-and-latino
  4. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/latinx-elitist-some-push-back-word-s-growing-use-n957036

Resources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics

https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2012/hispanic_heritage/

Hispanic Heritage Month Website

https://www.hispanicheritagemonth.gov/

Events at the Library of Congress

https://www.loc.gov/events/?q=hispanic+heritage+month

Smithsonian Institute

https://www.si.edu/events/heritagemonth

Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you found something useful.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2019. All rights reserved

Author: htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.

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