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El Espace
For starters, why is “Hispanic” still part of the name?
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El Espace is a column dedicated to news and culture relevant to Latinx communities. Expect politics, arts, analysis, personal essays and more. ¿Lo mejor? It’ll be in Spanish and English, so you can forward it to your tía, your primo Lalo or anyone else (read: everyone).
It’s almost Sept. 15, which means any day now my Instagram stories will be packed with cringe-worthy ads targeted at the Latinx community: references to chanclas and cafecitos, or social media managers of corporate accounts trying to tweet in Spanish. That’s what Hispanic Heritage Month has been reduced to in my eyes: a month when brands pander to us, hoping to convince us to spend our last few centavos.
National Hispanic Heritage Month has been around since 1988, when Ronald Reagan signed a bill to extend a weeklong celebration — “National Hispanic Heritage Week” had been introduced two decades earlier — into a full month. Back then, it was viewed as a step toward visibility, named after the new shared label, Hispanic, that had come into use to refer to Spanish and Latin American descendants living in the United States.
But fast forward to 2019, and Hispanic Heritage Month seems to have lost its sheen. Many of us bristle at the persistence of the term “Hispanic,” given its connection to Spain and colonization. Those with African and indigenous roots often feel left out of conversations and celebrations under that label. And while the time period, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, is significant because seven Latin American countries celebrate their independence in that span, this association presents a complication: When dozens of countries’ traditions are meant to be represented, are any of them actually getting their due?
These challenges raise the question of what Hispanic Heritage Month should look like in 2019.
First, let’s talk about the name. G. Cristina Mora, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American,” said the term Hispanic emerged both as a “fight for recognition” and an “administrative quandary.” After the 1970 census severely undercounted Latinx populations, the Census Bureau developed a Spanish Origin Advisory Committee made up of activists, academics and civic leaders to tackle the problem.
Soon, intense debates about how to address the issue emerged: Should the new label focus on commonality of the Spanish language? Should it center race? A shared experience of colonization? Some argued “Latino” too closely resembled “Latin American,” and preferred to distinguish themselves from a transient immigrant community. Others felt focusing the label on the Spanish language connected them too closely to their European colonizers. To complicate matters, there were generations of folks in New Mexico who embraced the term “Hispano”; these communities cherished both their Spanish and their Apache, Comanche, Pueblo or other Indigenous ancestry. “Even if they had never set foot in Spain,” Mora said, many claimed this part of their heritage as a mechanism to avoid discrimination, particularly during the Jim Crow era.
“Hispanic” was presented as an English-language parallel to the New Mexican term “Hispano,” one that could be reframed into a catchall to include dozens of nationalities, races and identities. “Hispanic became the imperfect compromise,” and eventually became a census category in 1980, Mora said.
Since then, the word Latino (and, more recently, the gender-inclusive term Latinx) has become more widely adopted, calling into question the continued use of Hispanic in the federally observed commemoration. Janel Martinez, a multimedia journalist who started Ain’t I Latina?, an online publication that highlights black Latinas, said she doesn’t refer to the month by its official name at all, instead calling it Latinx Heritage Month. But she says the issue goes deeper than terminology.
“Though these ‘all-inclusive’ terms were designed as umbrella terms to unify and reflect a shared culture, it’s clear not everyone is included,” Martinez said. “Those of us who often exist on the outskirts of the definition, such as black and/or Indigenous Latinxs, we’ve created our own safe spaces to celebrate ourselves during the month and beyond.” Martinez also added that she’d like to see the month include conversations about “how equitable and inclusive spaces are being created to center” the existence of black and Indigenous Latinos and “issues that disproportionately impact us.”
Saudi Garcia, a racial justice activist and facilitator for the conflict resolution organization In Cultured Company, which focuses primarily on Dominican-Haitian relations, said she preferred to identify as an “afrodescendant.” When the term Hispanic was introduced, said Garcia, “it came from a space of, ‘There isn’t room for us in this society.’” But she added that today, the umbrella term erases important differences in race, culture, language and class.
Garcia said she did not know what Hispanic Heritage Month should be called instead, but what was clear to her was that it needed a shift in intent. “Yes, there is something particular about being a Latin American child of immigrants,” Garcia said. “The work in the ’70s was gaining some visibility as a community of immigrants. Now the work is turning to combat the negative beliefs within our own Latinx communities here,” such as colorism and anti-blackness. Hispanic Heritage Month should go beyond mere celebration, she said, and instead focus on intercommunal conversations that will move our communities forward.
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