Take back Latino Heritage Month and #EndHispandering!

hispanderingOn September 14 a Latina friend of mine who’s also a college professor said to me, “Brace yourself for Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m already getting phone calls about recommendations for mariachi bands.”

I laughed a bit, but her comment stayed with me. See, she’s half Colombian and I’m Puerto Rican, and the idea of becoming the “go to” people about such things struck me as, well, just another example of how stereotypes about Latinos often work.

The fact that people are asking her about mariachi bands reveals how U.S. society usually lumps us together under the umbrella label “Latino/a” or “Hispanic” despite our cultural differences and diversity.

At the same time, her warning (“brace yourself”) fittingly captured how many Latinxs/Hispanics feel about Hispanic Heritage Month (which I prefer to call Latino Heritage Month because I find it more inclusive, less Spanish-oriented).

While the idea behind it was to officially acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of people of Latin American descent in this country, the narrative has been hijacked by the media for political and commercial purposes.

From September 15-October 15, we Latino/as become the target of a barrage of publicity campaigns trying to sell us something (ideas, products, candidates) under the pretext of an inherent “Latino pride.”

And yes, many of us are incredibly proud of our heritage. We don’t need Coca Cola trying to sell us pride in a can with their temporary tattoos. Is this what all Latino/as have been reduced to? Is our “obsession” with tattoos all we share?

There are countless examples of Latino stereotypes circulating and they seem to exponentially increase during this month. This is why many people are now calling it Hispandering Heritage Month.

I think we Latinxs/Hispanics (or whatever people prefer to call themselves) need to reclaim this month, make it really ours. How do we do that? Here are some ideas:

  • Be aware of marketing strategies trying to define for each of us what it means to be “Latinx/Hispanic.” We all have our own way of understanding what it means.
  • Encourage people to go beyond what some refer to as the “3 Fs” (flags, food, festivals).All of these are important components of a culture, but there’s a lot more beyond those such as values, norms, histories, worldviews, etc. In other words, simply hiring a mariachi band to play at an event or serving enchiladas at the cafeteria is not a meaningful way of celebrating Latino Heritage Month.
  • Take this as an opportunity to learn about the diverse groups that hide under the umbrella terms Latinx/Hispanic. We are all very different; we don’t eat the same foods, we don’t dance to the same music styles, we don’t have the same histories. There are even substantial differences within each particular sub-group. Another thing, Latinx/Hispanic ≠ Mexican (the most numerous group in the US).Not only does the US have populations from all over Latin America, but there are also ethnic and racial differences (because African, Asian, and indigenous roots are part of what defines us).
  • Learn about the different histories of Latinxs in this country and the reasons why they have migrated here (most times it has nothing to do with “looking for jobs,” but rather the political, military, and economic interventions of the US in their countries of origin). A good place to start is the book Harvest of Empire by Juan González. There is also a very good documentaryhttp://harvestofempiremovie.com/ based on the book. Share what you learn.
  • Consider borrowing from your local library or purchasing children’s books by US Latino/a authors and read them to children (or share them with a teacher). I have learned a great deal from reading these to my own children. All children need to see themselves reflected in literature, and Latino and other minority children have been at a disadvantage in this arena for too long. It’s equally important that these books are shared with majority (white) students, because that’s how they begin to understand the richness that Latinos add to US society.
  • Consider volunteering at a local organization that serves Latinos in your community.
  • See how you can help to register Latino/a voters in your community. It’s time to empower a whole segment of the population that has traditionally felt marginalized.

We have an entire month — and an excellent excuse — to learn more about Latinxs/Hispanics and to share what we learn. The focus is on us, but it’s up to us to take control of the narrative and strive to make Latino Heritage Month something we look forward to every year.

Marisel Moreno is an Associate Professor of Latino/a Literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame. This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post and was republished in 2015 by POCHO. Photo collage by Moreno.