Hispanic Heritage Month is problematic — here’s my take on it as a Latina

September 15th through October 15th marks Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration enacted by the United States government to honor the achievements of our country’s Latinx community. Though we are using this time to highlight the importance of visibility, it’s worth noting that Hispanic Heritage Month is controversial — as is the word “Hispanic.” Both terms unduly homogenize beautiful, complex cultures, and they were ironically created by a political system that continues to persecute those they aim to celebrate. As for “Hispanic,” it refers back to Spain, the country that brutally colonized these cultures, and excludes non-Spanish speakers. While bringing light to this, we also aim to support the voices of the Latinx community over the course of this month. 

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated in the United States from September 15th to October 15th, and represents a canned way for the government to celebrate the accomplishments of the Hispanic population. While the sentiment seems nice and reassuring at face value, as a Latina, I have a problem with Hispanic Heritage Month, and the term “Hispanic” in general. Why? Because someone’s culture isn’t defined by the language they speak — especially when that language is of the people who colonized them. Especially not when the term in question, Hispanic, was created to group Spanish speakers together for the census.

The term Hispanic was coined by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1970 as a way to group Spanish-speaking communities together. Before that, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban immigrants were all classified as “white,” while those with Latin American ancestry would go by their nationality and where they lived in the United States.

The problem with calling people Hispanic is that it excludes everyone who doesn’t speak Spanish in the Latin American community — like those from Haiti, or Brazil, which just so happens to be South America’s largest country. And what about those who are Afro-Latinx? What about the children growing up in Latin households who don’t speak Spanish — do they just not count?

Don’t get me wrong, the term “Latin” has its own issues, too, since it’s a gendered word and all. While a room full of Latin women would be considered Latina, as soon as a man enters the mix, it gets changed to Latino. That’s why the gender-neutral “Latinx” is slowly making the rounds. But “Latin” is still more inclusive than Hispanic, since it includes non-Spanish speaking countries in Latin America.

Hispanic Heritage Month wants us to celebrate Hispanic culture, but only if it fits into the mold of what Hispanic culture is supposed to be.

We don’t need more ads for taco trucks, or celebrations with margaritas. We don’t need more caricatures. What we honestly need is government reform that helps protect those who are Latin, those who are immigrants, those who are Dreamers. In an essay on Feministing, Juliana Britto Schwartz breaks this down further by explaining what a real “Hispanic Heritage Month” should celebrate. She writes,

"I want this month to be a celebration of the progress towards equity and justice that Latin@s have fought so hard for. I want to hear about the 100 women who risked deportation to demand fair immigration reform, or the domestic workers fighting for fair pay and treatment. I want the media to cover the Dream 9, who got themselves detained in order to expose the treatment immigrant detainees face in our nation’s network of immigration detention centers, or for companies to feature the app created to help people move through the process of applying for citizenship. I want the White House to invite Presente.org members, not Ricky Martin, to deliver a speech (sorry Ricky)."

This feels like an especially potent sentiment after what could be the repeal of DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which Obama established in 2012. The act grants undocumented children the opportunity to work, go to school, and get a license. Now, with the act in jeopardy, 800,000 Dreamers, aka DACA recipients, may be deported, possibly back to countries they’re not even from. But Trump, who’s calling for the repeal, didn’t seem to take this into account when he delivered a memo about ushering in Hispanic Heritage Month. false

So my question is this: Is Hispanic Heritage Month going to include the Dreamers?

Will it be talking about them in a framework that doesn’t criminalize them or their parents? Will it be bringing up issues about immigration, and about how hard it is to come to this country legally? Will it talk about the incredible diversity that makes up the Latin community? Or, will it just be commodifying and selling “Hispanic culture” through a capitalist framework that only urges us to support a charade of what it really means to be Latin, aka eating tacos and buying appropriated Latin goods?

I’m proud to be Latina and I absolutely think we should celebrate all the rich cultures that make up the Latin community. But I’m not so sure that Hispanic Heritage Month is the way to do it. It may be a step, but is it truly a step in the right direction?