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Latinx Files: What to make of Hispanic Heritage Month?

A collage of people with the words "Hispanic Heritage Month"
(Evan Solano / For The Times; Getty Images; Michael Putland / Getty Images; Cathy Murphy / Getty Images)

Cynicism.

That’s the first word that pops into my head when I think of Hispanic/Latinx Month, which kicked off yesterday.

The origins of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month date back to 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill establishing the week containing Sept. 15 as Hispanic Heritage Week. Choosing that date was a symbolic one: It coincides with the independence days of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica.

“The people of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and a desire to settle freely in a free land,” wrote Johnson.

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In 1988, with the help of one of my colleagues (more on that later), Ronald Reagan extended the observance to 30 days.

Since then, Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month has been largely co-opted and stripped of much of its meaning by corporate America. At some point, Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month became a period during which brands bombard you with campaigns acknowledging the existence of the Latinx consumer. It’s toymaker Mattel announcing the Celia Cruz and Julia Alvarez Barbie dolls. It’s the Broward County Government Facebook page posting (it’s now deleted) a dancing taco with maracas to celebrate the nearly one-third of the county that’s Latinx.

It’s NPR renaming its famed Tiny Desk Concert series as “El Tiny,” and it’s my employer sending out a press release announcing a partnership with Univision to air our “Fernandomania @ 40" docuseries (which was proudly featured in this space).

That this tokenization — regardless of intent — is still happening in 2021, when Latinx people account for nearly 1 in 5 Americans, is disheartening.

So yeah, cynicism.

Of course, these are just the opinions of one person and by no means represent the totality of 60+ million Latinx people living in America. With that said, here’s what others make of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month.

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What do the youth think of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month?

In preparation for this week’s newsletter, I reached out to three students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to get their thoughts on Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month. Let me tell you, there is nothing more rewarding and enlightening than talking to the youth.

Here is how they responded:

As far as Latino Heritage Month. Simply put, I don’t necessarily celebrate it. Every day for me is Latino Heritage Month because I live and breathe my identity of being a Latina and a woman of color. It goes far beyond just the month.” — Emily Bonilla, 21

”I do get excited because it’s a month where you just go hard. You’re like, ‘OK, I’m going to support all these Latinx businesses a little more today.’ There’s a fashion designer that I love [Paty Delgado], she has this fashion brand called Hija de tu Madre and I’m a big supporter. I’m going to use this month as an opportunity to buy even more from her shop and I’m going to repost and share her things so more people can love it. It’s a way for me to show my appreciation. It’s also a great time to teach people outside of the culture what we’re about and why it means so much to us.” — Marilyn Parra, 21

I think for the most part, Latinx Heritage Month is full of misconceptions and stereotypes. People just assume everybody who is Latinx is Mexican. Obviously, that’s not the case. It’s a very American thing to do, to put a Band-Aid on and say, ‘Hey, we’re giving you an entire 30 days to celebrate. You can’t say that we didn’t do anything for you.’ Honestly, I just don’t think it’s enough.” — Chelsea Hylton, 22

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How Hispanic Heritage Week became Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s difficult for me to be entirely cynical about Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month knowing how much it means to people whom I respect and admire. Take my colleague Robert Lopez, who had a hand in helping turn Hispanic Heritage Week into the 30-day observance it is now.

Lopez interned for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the summer of 1988 and was tasked with finding co-sponsors for the legislation that would extend Hispanic Heritage Week. He wrote a first-person account of his experience in 2013, which I encourage you to read.

In the process of getting the necessary signatures, Lopez learned about the past achievements of the Latinx community that he hadn’t been taught in school.

“I went to Azusa High, where there were many Latinos but there were no Latino or Chicano studies classes,” Lopez told me last year for a story I wrote on the monthlong event. “I never learned about the contributions of my community because it was never taught to us. We were taught a version of history that didn’t include us.”

That realization, the feeling of being cheated out of your own past, has been echoed by multiple people whom I’ve spoken to on the subject. And that’s where the value in Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month lies. Yes, it’s imperfect and has been made nearly intolerable by corporate America. But it’s also true that many of us don’t know the role we’ve played in shaping American history and society, myself included — it wasn’t until working for the Los Angeles Times that I learned about the Chicano Moratorium.

It’s not lost on me that Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration establishing Hispanic Heritage Week singled out the educational community, tasking them with observing the holiday “with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” In the decades since, teachers, particularly at the collegiate level, have largely lived up to the task of chronicling the achievements, struggles and histories of Latinx Americans. A special shoutout to the Latinx/Chicanx professors out there.

A pragmatic approach to Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month

I asked Iliana Limón Romero, The Times’ deputy sports editor and a Latinx leader in the newsroom, to share her thoughts. Here’s what she wrote:

I have always thought of Hispanic Heritage Month as inauthentic pandering, but it’s been interesting to experience it in the Southwest and in Florida. I don’t speak for every person living in these areas, but generally people in the Southwest seem annoyed by the decision to mark half of one month and half of another to briefly pay attention and celebrate the same handful of historical figures.

In Florida, however, I was surprised by how many Puerto Ricans and recent Central and South American immigrants were excited about Hispanic Heritage Month. They knew it was pandering, but they didn’t care because they were excited about a chance to celebrate their culture. If you paused to hand them a microphone, they were going to take it and own it.

There could be a correlation between the size of the Latinx population and the reaction. If you’re a true minority, you might be thrilled to have a chance to share more of your heritage with your neighbors.

I’m in a leadership role with a lot of journalism organizations and I long ago decided I would be happy to serve on committees and speak on panels to amplify our voices, but with my participation you get unfiltered commentary and called out for failed efforts to address inequality. I extract pledges and hold people accountable. So the holiday may be fake and represent a lot of pandering, but I see it as an opportunity.

Things we read this week that we think you should read

— I was invited to be a guest on today’s episode of the podcast “The Times,” hosted by columnist Gustavo Arellano. The topic? The ongoing debate (and fight) over the term “Latinx.”

— Gwen Aviles of Insider profiled Latinx people who are reclaiming Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month. I was struck by this quote by Angel Jones, an Afro-Latinx assistant professor of education at Southern Illinois University:

“I’m proud and grateful for any opportunity I get to share the stories of our people, to highlight the beauty that is our community. But it’s as if we don’t exist until September 14 and as if we cease to exist October 16.”

— Hondurans in Montana. Dominicans in New Hampshire. Venezuelans in Texas. Latinxs are in every corner of the United States. That’s the takeaway from this wonderful survey report by NBC News’ Suzanne Gamboa and Nicole Acevedo.

— For the Texas Observer, Obed Manuel wrote this personal essay about his mom’s tacos, the intimate conversations filled with hope held at the dinner table, and the painful loss and grief caused by COVID-19.

— The October edition of Texas Monthly magazine features this cover story by Jack Herrera on why Democrats are losing voters in South Texas.


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