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As the title makes clear, here at NPR we kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month.
Not Latino Heritage Month. Not Latinx Heritage Month. Not even a compromise or a combination of the three: Hispanic / Latino / Latinx Heritage Month.
To be fair, when it comes to this team, NPR began participating in the national event called Hispanic Heritage Month without discussing the tensions that exist within Latin American communities regarding the use of the word Hispanic, its origins, and if maybe it’s time to replace the tote tag with something different.
It may have something to do with the rapid pace of news recently regarding the end of a 20-year war in Afghanistan, another terrifying peak in the COVID-19 pandemic, or this week’s recall elections in California. . Or, quite transparently, it could have something to do with the fact that in 2020 only 6% of journalists in the NPR newsroom and airwaves identify as Hispanic or Latino.
But it is not too late to ask the following thorny questions: What is the harm in bringing together around 62 million people with complex identities under one umbrella? Is a general pan-ethnic term necessary to unite and reflect a shared culture that is still largely (infuriatingly) excluded from mainstream popular culture? Or the more basic question: ¿Porque Hispanic?
How Latinos / Latinas / Latinx became Hispanic
Hispanic Heritage Month began as a week-long celebration in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson who, at the time, said: “People of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers and of farmers motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and the desire to settle freely in a free country.
“This heritage is ours,” he proclaimed.
It wasn’t until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan extended the week to 31 full days – until October 15 – keeping the start date of September 15 as it coincides with Guatemala’s National Independence Day. , Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. . Likewise, Mexico celebrates the 16th, Chile the 18th and Belize the 21st.
But before Johnson even broached the term Hispanic, there was a lot of debate within government entities about how to refer to Latinos in the United States, Cristina Mora, a sociologist at the University of California, told NPR. Berkeley.
Mora, who wrote about the adoption of the term Hispanic in Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Created a New American, found that the use of umbrella categorization is inextricably linked with the U.S. Census and its attempts to identify and quantify different groups of people.
The Pew Research Center reports that in the 1930s, Latinos living in the United States, regardless of their place of birth or family origin, were all rated as “Mexican” by the door-to-door counters of the US Census Bureau. . It wasn’t until 1970 that the agency began asking Latinos living in the United States to identify themselves as “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish” or “No, none of the above. these ”. This, however, has led to a bizarre and unexpected under-representation of white Americans who misunderstood the classifications. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of confused people living in parts of the southern or central United States have mistakenly identified themselves as Central or South American, according to Pew.
But even with the Latino subgroups added, Mora says the 1970 census once again resulted in severe undercoverage of the minority but growing population, which in turn led to a national backlash from activists, academics and others. civic leaders who demanded fair representation.
Latinos could have called themselves “Brown”
New groups have been formed to tackle the problem, including the Census Bureau’s Advisory Committee on Spanish Origin and a group of Spanish-speaking federal employees called the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions. Mora recalls that many of the options offered at the time included “Brown,” “Latin American,” “Latino,” and Hispanic.
“One of the problems was that Latinos were seen as outsiders, invaders and not inherently American. from coast to coast and who were patriotic, who fought in wars, who contributed to American history, who built American cities. So when a term like Latin America was used, right away it seemed to be divisive because it was seen as too foreign, ”explains Mora.
She adds: “Hispanic was never a term everyone liked, but it was a term that received a lot of support from Latinos in Nixon. [administration] and, later, the Ford administration. It was eventually added to the 1980 census.
Many Latinos had an immediate disdain for the term
“We hated the term Hispanic because it was a term imposed on us by the US government,” Paul Ortiz, author of An African American and Latinx History of the United States, told NPR.
“It wasn’t a natural fit for someone I knew. I didn’t know anyone growing up who said, ‘Oh, hey, I’m Hispanic. “It was always either, I’m Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, or Chicana,” says Ortiz, who is also a professor of history at the University of Florida.
Much of this, he says, is based on the origins of the word Hispanic, which is the English translation of the Spanish “Hispano,” meaning a person whose cultural traditions originate from Spain.
When that is the starting point, he says, “It immediately erases all the centuries of pre-Columbian history, culture and civilization that existed before the European conquest and the colonization of the Americas … and that’s understandably upsetting. for people who are not white. “ It alienates indigenous and Afro-Latino communities whose history includes deep resistance to the Spanish invasion and is not necessarily linked to Spain, Ortiz says.
The rise in popularity of Latinx
The recent popularity of the word Latinx in the United States presents another alternative to the controversial Hispanic label which supporters say offers the inclusion of genres as well. Ortiz marvels at how it has been adapted so quickly by young people, academic institutions and businesses, although it is not without its own critics.
In naming her book, it was her students who suggested using Latinx in the title. “Originally, it would be African-American and Latin history in the United States. But my students really impressed me with the themes of inclusiveness and diversity, [saying] we have to be open. “
He also noticed that over the past couple of years or so, many of the requests to speak he received from companies were for Latin or Latinx Heritage Month and not Hispanic Heritage Month – this includes an invitation to take speaking at a Deutsche Bank event later this week.
Ortiz suggests that one theory for change is that it is driven by various employee organizations within companies. “Almost everyone – those who have reached out – have adopted the term Latinx.”
“I find it fascinating because the stereotype is that the term Latinx is forced on us by academics, but that’s just not true,” he says.
What types of stories are told during Hispanic Heritage Month?
Beyond the dispute over the name of the month-long celebration, there is another concern: In an effort to make it more acceptable or commercially viable, stories of oppression, prejudice and injustice are being whitewashed or ignored. .
“Too often the focus is on musical contributions, dance or other happy art forms,” Mario T. Garcia, professor of chicana and chicano studies at the University of California, told NPR. Santa Barbara.
“But we also need programming that reflects historical issues… because you can’t assume Latinos were already experiencing the lynchings in South Texas in the 1910s”, Zoot Suit Riots, Child Segregation Mexicans in Schools, or the Chicano-led high school walkouts of the 1960s that permanently changed higher education enrollments for Latinx students.
In his experience, Garcia notes, the American public education system does such a poor job of teaching Latinx history in this country, that often Hispanic Heritage Month is the only opportunity for students to to learn more. “It’s a shame,” he said.
But approached in the right way, he adds, even these stories can ultimately be considered happy. “Because the historic struggles of Chicanos, Mexican Americans, other Latinos are happy stories … because it is only through these struggles that we have been able to achieve more social justice in this country, more education.”