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Hispanic Heritage Month must recognize our struggles, not just our culture

G. Cristina Mora, Associate professor of sociology | September 29, 2020
Students rallying at Sproul Plaza to demand immigration reforms.

Students rally on the steps of Sproul Hall in 2006 to demand amnesty and civil rights for illegal immigrants. (UC Berkeley photo by Steve McConnell)

As we pause to celebrate “Hispanic Heritage Month,” this year it is more critical than ever that we remember the social justice and activist roots that sparked the move toward “Hispanic/Latino/Latinx” recognition in this country.

Too often our celebrations focus on how Latinos have broken into the mainstream or amount to routine communications with “fast facts” on different Latin American countries.

But this is not the type of heritage celebration we need right now, not at a moment when Latinos are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19, police brutality, unjust sterilization practices at the border, pandemic-related unemployment and nearly every other major social ill facing the nation.

What we need to do instead is to remember that the fight for Latino recognition was originally about social justice.

Indeed, while Latino immigrant and community activism has been around for centuries, the impetus for “Hispanic/Latino” recognition was rooted in common frustrations and broader conversations of how exploitation, campaigns of racial terror, and even colonial expansion had not only harmed Latino communities over centuries, but had also erased their suffering and stories from U.S. history.

During the 1960s, Chicano, Boricua and other activists, frustrated by the endemic poverty, structural racism and police brutality that plagued their communities, came together to build a coalition. These initial gatherings were sometimes tense, but more often than not they allowed community leaders to realize how the patterns of suffering within their communities were historically rooted.

In the Southwest, for example, the storied Texas Rangers hunted and lynched Mexicans and Mexican Americans at alarming rates and helped to reproduce a broader narrative that connected not simply Mexicans, but all Spanish speakers, as criminals.

In New York and Chicago, the unequal and unfair pay practices that Puerto Ricans endured on factory floors soon reinforced the widespread sentiment that Latinos were a cheap, expendable workforce. Inspired by Black activism and the civil rights movement more generally, these activists began coming together to fight for social change.

Unfortunately, much of the “Hispanic Heritage” celebrations today feature Mexican beer, Cuban salsa music and taco salads, and all too often sideline the more critical language of systemic oppression and racism that ignited the Hispanic/Latino fight for recognition in the early 1960s and 1970s.

This turn toward emphasizing culture and de-emphasizing the grassroots roots history of Latino politics in the U.S. has not been happenstance. It has been part of the imperfect project of bringing diverse communities together under a common “Hispanic” label.

Although Latinos are diverse, the argument became, we at least all have the same culture. Over time this focus on culture was good for sales, and became commodified by mainstream organizations bent on further developing a profitable Latino market. While helping to build the notion of a “Hispanic Market” and “Hispanic Buying Power,” the turn towards focusing on culture also sidelined critical conversations about Latino exploitation and social justice.

So how do we actually reclaim a month? There are several ways to do this. One way is to look at the data and connect the patterns we see across Latino communities to a language of structural inequality, systemic racism and underrepresentation. I’ll provide an example that is close to home — while Latinos make up 58% of the K-12 student body in California, they are only 16% of the student population at UC Berkeley, my home institution.

This does not simply reflect broad preferences, but rather a case of underrepresentation by systematic exclusion. While UC Berkeley is taking very important steps to address this history, we need to use Hispanic Heritage Month to elevate these unjust statistics and hold our institutions accountable.

Another way is reclaim the month is to make space for identity conversations. Latinos have always bickered about the labels we use to call ourselves — folks have never been entirely satisfied with Hispanic, Latino or Latin American labels.

Latinx today is at the center of yet another debate about what we will call ourselves. These conversations are worthy, so let’s not be afraid to put them front and center. Were it not for those critiquing “Hispanic” loudly, we would have not paid attention to how colonialism, both Spanish and American, is tied to generations of Latino exploitation in the United States.

Were it not for critiques about “Latino/Latina,” we would not have made critical space for non-gendered and intersectional identities within Latino activist agendas. While uncomfortable, these conversations lead to important reflections about power and systematic inequality and, in turn, keep the issue of racial justice at the fore.

As we celebrate the remainder of this month, let’s make sure to hold institutions accountable — we deserve much more than flag decorations and country profiles. And we are much more than a people that shares a common cultural affinity for salsa music and tacos. What we are is a community, however imperfect, that is continuously striving for recognition and equal treatment. As COVID-19 and other ills continue to impact us disproportionately, let’s use this month to celebrate our resilience and continue to demand a place at the table.

Cross-posted from the San Francisco Chronicle