According to the U.S. government, September is Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration of Hispanic culture, heroes and holidays. The White House has had Latin music, NFL players have read to underprivileged children and the Smithsonian website hosts a picture of Celia Cruz with merengue playing in the background. I love me some salsa, but there’s something about this month that irks me.
First of all, the very word Hispanic is problematic. “Hispanic” defines someone by Spanish, the language of the people who colonized them. I don’t want to be defined by the violent encounter that was colonization, but even if I did, my ancestors were colonized by Portugal, not by Spain, and Spanish isn’t my native language. Hispanic excludes non-Spanish speaking people from the Americas into some vague “other” category. What if you are Haitian and speak Creole? What if Zapotec is your first language, and not Spanish? Or what if you are a Mexican-American raised in an English-speaking household? We all share many defining characteristics in common, but language isn’t always or necessarily one of them.
That’s why I prefer the term Latino (or Latin@, if you want to include women, Latinx if you want to get away from the gender binary altogether). It speaks to the geographic commonalities that people from the Americas share, while at the same time reflecting our diversity in the way that checking “Hispanic” on the Census just won’t do.
Similar to its namesake, Hispanic Heritage Month simplifies something that is wonderfully complex into a marketable soundbite of tacos, sombreros, and token Latin@ success stories. How can Obama begin to celebrate our heritage with events at the White House when his administration has deported more people than any previous president? How can Walmart claim to support Latin@s in education when they still refuse to pay their Latin@ workers a living wage? How can the GOP have the gall to make a video honoring the “numerous contributions of Hispanics,” as a ”nation built on the foundation of hard work, innovation and a desire for a brighter future,” when they punish Latin@ immigrants for contributing, working hard and seeking that brighter future”?
Given that people are dying each day trying to cross a border that our government wants to further militarize, I just can’t swallow these celebrations of Latin@ culture.
Latin@s are not a bandwagon to jump on. We’re not a monolithic market to conquer. We are a huge population of diverse people fighting for a place in a country that tends to exploit and exclude us all year, even during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Instead of ingenuous attempts at attracting votes and consumerism, I want this month to be a celebration of the progress towards equity and justice that Latin@s have fought so hard for. I want to hear about the 100 women who risked deportation to demand fair immigration reform, or the domestic workers fighting for fair pay and treatment. I want the media to cover the Dream 9, who got themselves detained in order to expose the treatment immigrant detainees face in our nation’s network of immigration detention centers, or for companies to feature the app created to help people move through the process of applying for citizenship. I want the White House to invite Presente.org members, not Ricky Martin, to deliver a speech (sorry Ricky).
Most of all, I want our government to stop using Latin@s to promote their own messages and interests, and start listening to what we’ve been trying to tell them all along: we want justice, equity and inclusion.
If not? No more fish tacos for you, sir.