Our neighborhood library helped me pay attention to Hispanic Heritage Month. Without a visit there, I suspect I would have missed this important celebration of our diverse culture. It caused me to wonder why Black History Month appears to get more attention than Hispanic Heritage Month? What am I missing?
There are obvious differences in the origin of each celebration and how each has evolved. Carter G. Woodson, renowned African American historian, launched Negro History Week in 1926 as part of the work of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1976, President Gerald Ford declared February Black History Month.
President Lyndon Johnson initiated Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 –” Hispanic” being a term coined by the government that has generated great controversy. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that expanded this celebration to a full month extending from September 15 to October 15.
September 15th is significant as the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Led by Guatemala, these five countries declared independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Mexico and Chile became independent on September 16 and 18, respectively.
There are very few parts of this country where people of Hispanic or Latinx cultures are not a significant part of the local population. Yet for many cities and towns, Latinx don’t lack a presence. Rather they lack visibility and a voice, at least in the eyes of the white population. In the Washington DC area, the largest visibility of Latinx populations, mostly from Central America, work in manual labor jobs such as construction, domestic work, and landscaping. This presence is evident in the more conservative suburbs as well as urban cores.
Gradually, as is true in the African American community, Latinx people are running and winning elected positions and managing their own businesses. I suspect racism and not being seen or respected in the larger white community has slowed the transition to leadership roles in government and business.
An article this September by the Pew Research Center details the growth in numbers, educational levels and influence of the U.S. Latino population. The U.S. Hispanic population grew to 62.5 million in 2021, up over 11 million from 2010. People of Mexican origin make up 60% of this population, with people from Puerto Rico 5.8 million, and a million or more from El Salvador, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Columbia, and Honduras. This article also refutes misunderstandings in our political debate – growth in Latin population is from new births, not immigration. 72% of Latinos over 5 speak English proficiently. Four in five Latinos are U.S. citizens.
You, like me, might be confused about how to describe people of Hispanic or Latinx descent. There is not one generic term, because there is not one generic culture. There are as many cultures as countries from which Spanish people come. I found the explanation from Marlene Targ Brill’s book, Dolores Huerta Stands Strong, immensely helpful. In the endnote to this post, she speaks to the derivations of the various identifiers preferred by Latinx populations.
In my library visit, I came across a short biography of Dolores Huerta. While in college in the 1960’s I participated in picket lines at grocery stores in support of the farm workers who picked the grapes I like to buy. I, like most, considered Cesar Chavez the leader of the farm workers movement. Chavez indeed was the visible leader, who sacrificed enormously to organize farm workers’ first union. As the growers fought back, he went on hunger strikes to bring attention to the injustices in working and living conditions of the mostly Chicano farm workers.
Yet, the success Chavez and this movement enjoyed would not have happened without his co-leader and strategist Dolores Huerta. Huerta gave up a job as a schoolteacher and spent days and months on the road away from her family fighting for fairness for farm workers. She was tireless and unstoppable, both in her on-the-ground farm-by-farm organizing efforts and in her fierce negotiations with the owners of the large companies and the elected leaders in the California, Arizona, and the US Congress. It was Huerta’s idea to involve middle class white people in their struggle by calling for a boycott of table grapes. To gain attention and support for the farm workers’ movement, she moved the center of her organizing to New York city after the 1965 boycott.
Antonia Pantoja is a Puerto Rican born leader who the New York Museum of City Life describes as “… a formidable figure in the historical development of Puerto Rican and Latinx life in New York, Puerto Rico, California, and beyond during the second half of the 20th century.” Yet Pantoja is barely known outside her community. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico to a poor family, she came to New York in 1944 and became a war welder. Her organizing resulted in her founding Aspira, a national organization focused on the education and leadership of young Puerto Ricans. Aspira sued the New York school system to start ESOL, English for Speakers of Other Languages. Her organizing included California and national organizations like the Puerto Rican Research and Resource Center in Washington, DC.
Huerta and Pantoja are great examples of people in communities near you and me who are organizing for basic rights and respect for their communities. How do we find out about them and what their fight is? What can each of us do to bring attention to people of Latinx heritage who feel the results of racism and injustice? What specific action might you take to become more aware and engaged?
Endnote1 “Chicano/Chicana, Latino/Latina, Mexican American or Hispanic? Many people get confused about which term to use to describe people in the Unites States who are of Spanish-speaking descent – and about whether such labeling is necessary at all. Definitions and how they are received vary, depending on what sources are consulted. “Chicano” refers to someone of Mexican origin who was born in the Unites States, like Dolores Huerta. While some people view the term negatively, because it was first used as an insult, others take pride in the term, noting the work of the Chicano Movement, or La Causa, for it fight for civil rights and better treatment of its people. “Latino” refers to geographical regions, particularly of those countries that were under Roman rule long ago. “Hispanic” usually refers to immigrants from countries that speak Spanish, including Mexico and many other places in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean islands. Both “Latino” and “Hispanic” bother some people too, and to some Mexican American implies a split identity. More often, someone who is Spanish prefers to be identified by the country of their origin, such as Mexican or Peruvian, rather than to be lumped under one vast regional or ethnic term.