Commentary: Hispanic Heritage Month is a meme now (because we are exhausted)
Mama Coco is one of the most revered characters in Pixar animation pop culture history, the grandmother in the titular 2017 film “Coco,” a rare Latino-centered story built around the theme of Day of the Dead.
So one could imagine the shock of humor in seeing the elderly abuelita in masked human form sprinting down a street, beating a young man in an arm wrestle and making out with a stranger in one of the hottest Hispanic Heritage Month memes of the week.
The TikTok video by user JuanDaMC in Colombia is from the Halloween season of 2020, but it was new to me, and reposted to Twitter this week with a perfect caption: “Happy Hispanic Heritage Month.” I found myself rewatching and laughing out loud at the artfully edited clip far too many times over the course of a recent 24 hours.
It wasn’t the only one.
We’re just about 10 days into this half-September, half-October “month” devoted to the limited ritual acknowledgment of Latinos’ contributions to U.S. society, and my screen has been mostly full of ironic or lol-worthy “happy Hispanic Heritage Month” posts related to the observance — and not much else.
While big broadcast media would like us all to gather round the old tube and watch a variety show of similarly tinted celebrities wax poetic about our collective glories, the emoji generation has had other ideas.
Some of the memes are funny; some are angering, such as those detailing ways in which a corporate or academic institution abused or exploited them under the auspices of diversity initiatives. The best ones show kids behaving badly, oppressive boomer vibes or — a strong contender for top hit — an NSFW clip of someone dressed as Tejana star Selena ferociously attacking a piñata depiction of convicted killer Yolanda Saldivar.
As digital discourse goes, the lowercases in “happy hispanic heritage month” are intentional, used to flatten the prestige or seriousness of a word for comedic effect. After all, we Latinos barely register in the decision-making halls of power in Hollywood and the media, according to recently released federal data.
For me, the rise of these memes is an encapsulation of diasporic ingenuity on social media. The memes unite us with our cohorts in South America, Central America and Mexico. More deeply, it also reflects the state of ambivalence that we have about ourselves, and that non-Latino Americans continue to have about us.
Much of the chaos centers around the pesky issue of what to label ourselves exactly. Supporters of the de-gendering Latinx label push for its full adoption in mainstream liberal discourse, though response within the broader community remains limited.
The dissonance is now rampant. Thus, Spotify is using “Latinx Heritage Month,” Target went with “Latino Heritage Month,” and the Smithsonian Museum of American History stuck with the ever-sober “Hispanic Heritage Month,” reflecting the most generally used term that persists to this day. Beating out the competition for utmost progressive points, Pinterest and others this year chose the fringiest of all new potential unifiers: “Latiné.” On Sunday night it inched closer to the mainstream when “The Inheritance” playwright Matthew López, accepting the Tony for best play used the term: “This is the 74th Tony Awards and yet I am only the first Latiné writer to win in this category.”
“This is the only Hispanic Heritage Month I’ve ever cared about,” said a contact and prolific meme-sharer who works in corporate America in Los Angeles, and declined to be named in public.
Earlier, another friend sent me one particularly irresistible “happy hispanic heritage month” post. This one is about Juan Gabriel and meant to make us cry — but laugh-cry. It was familiar to me but new to her.
In the clip, a young queer person is singing along to the Juan Gabriel song “Hasta que te conocí” while sipping on a drink, sitting with friends at one of those familiar LGBT+ cantinas south of the border. He starts with a smile that then turns pensive, and then nostalgic, and finally the kid tears up and cries, as he sings along and remembers that special person who changed his life.
There’s an entire arc that occurs here, and that’s the gold-standard of viralizing and staying relevant pretty much for good.
The video always takes me back to similar moments in Mexico, to those smelly corner gay cantinas, where everyone truly is welcome. The juke is always on and the bass blasts deep upon speakers, bouncing off wet tile floors and walls. Songs hurt more here.
Re-watching this particular clip in the context of Hispanic Heritage Month made me realize that no matter where we are in the world, being Latina, Latino, Latinx or Latiné ultimately means we share one common denominator in the contemporary moment. Identifying in this way comes down to always being willing to be tethered, through thick and thin, fun and folly, to a diaspora, whether that be Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Cuba, Argentina or any of the countries of Latin America, including the Caribbean.
Saying “happy hispanic heritage month” with a meme these days is a reminder that despite all our differences, U.S. Latinos can unify around the tradition of finding humor, often in the worst of circumstances. When all else fails, we can revert to the joy and liberation shared in the art of talking smack.
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