It’s the time of the year again when Americans receive rapid fire facts about 33 countries, 666,873,240 people of varying ethnicities and 560 languages within a 30-day period. I’m not sure about you, but it seems to me that it would take a whole lot longer than a month to explain the vast diversity that is Latin America. However, every year since 1988, we have attempted just that. Contrary to popular belief, Latin America is not a monolith, and Latin Americans are not just an electorate that needs to be won over every time presidential and midterm elections come around. We are real people who have existed and continue to exist outside of the obligatory 30-day period in which the majority of Americans are forced to acknowledge us. However, each Hispanic Heritage Month, the rhetoric over our existence is dominated by non-Latinx Americans and corporations who continue to undermine, homogenize and profit off of the Latinx experience.
To understand what is wrong with Hispanic Heritage Month, we need to understand its inception. Hispanic Heritage week began under Lyndon B. Johnson and was extended to a month under Ronald Reagan. The month started Sept. 15 because of the date’s significance as independence day from Spain for five Latin American countries. Various dates in September also mark an additional four independence days. Finally, the month includes Oct. 12, which is Dia de la Raza. Reagan seemed to really want the support of the Latinx people. In the United States, he expanded amnesty for illegal immigrants to become citizens. However, he simultaneously increased security on the Mexican-American border and punished businesses that hired illegal immigrants. Additionally, he took an imperialist approach in his foreign policies in Latin America that furthered political instability in the region. Reagan believed Latinos were “conservative, they just didn’t know it yet.” Little did Reagan know, his party would one day be associated with the tightening of immigration policies and anti-Latinx rhetoric.
Not only has the U.S. government among various administrations seen us as an electorate and created contradictory policies regarding immigration and Latinx rights at home and abroad, the U.S. has historically tried and failed to categorize Latinx people. In 1930, there was only one category for Latinx persons on the census — Mexican. While the census may appear to be more progressive now, it continues to undermine the complexity of ethnicity and race and fails to embody the often mixed heritage of Latinx people. It also fails to list other Latin American nationalities aside from Mexican, Cuban or Puerto Rican. Additionally, a growing number of Latinos identify as Native American, but the census requires a person to list a federally-recognized tribe and Latin American tribal groups are not usually recognized in the U.S. It is quite literally othering to have to check “other” on the census — nevertheless, this is what many Latinx people resort to. There continues to be a deep misunderstanding of the Latinx experience in America and attempts to define it have only furthered that divide.
Much like other heritage months and Pride Month, another issue with Hispanic Heritage Month is its commercialization. In an effort to be representative or “woke,” corporations often end up doing something offensive and they either double down or apologize. These controversies often overshadow the activities, artists and people who are actually being celebrated. Then there is the opposite issue, where we as a society expect the media and major corporations to represent us. Companies like Disney, who continue to profit from historically racist films, can just sweep that ugly history under the rug by releasing progressive and representative films like “Encanto” and “Coco”. Meanwhile, that same company tried to patent the words “Día de los Muertos,” a significant cultural holiday in Mexico. We know how important representation in the media is, so what can be done? We need to hold these corporations accountable and support actual Latinx creatives.
Hispanic Heritage Month should be a time for celebrating and learning about Latin American diversity and culture and unlearning our preconceived biases. Learning the various independence days is a start, as well as unlearning the popular myth that May 5 is Mexican independence day. Increase your knowledge of famous Latinx figures, not just Frida Kahlo — who I love — or Che Guevera who is extremely controversial. It should also be a time to learn how the effects of colonialism are still extremely present in Latinx people’s lives. Recognize that despite America’s attempt to homogenize us into one larger Eurocentric Spanish culture, many Latinx people want to move away from our colonial heritage and identify with being Black or Indigenous. Finally, continue to purchase from Latinx businesses after Hispanic Heritage Month ends and if you can, donate to organizations fighting for Latinx rights as well as to Latin American organizations such as in Puerto Rico, which is currently facing hurricane recovery. It is time to decolonize our minds and with genuine understanding, we can all increase our knowledge and compassion.
Yssis Cano-Santiago is an Opinion Columnist who writes on Health, Technology and the Environment for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.