In Mexican-American communities, National Hispanic Heritage Month begins with the shout that marks the start of the Mexican Revolution—the grito heard around the world. In the border town that raised me, crimson red and earthy green flank the image of the eagle with the serpent in its clutches. Folks donning these national colors, holding elote in one hand and an agua fresca in the other, celebrate Mexican Independence Day each year on September 16th. This same scene unfolds throughout the United States with different foods, different colors depending on the specific Hispanic community. Each celebration is undeniably unique.
As we celebrate and honor the heritage of our students throughout Hispanic Heritage Month, we must also do the important work of understanding how and why the distinct histories of a multinational, multicultural and multilingual group of communities were consolidated into Hispanic heritage in the first place.
As someone who falls under the definition of Hispanic, the way I personally identify shifts. Sometimes, I’m Latinx or Mexican American. Other times, I note that I’m a non-black Latinx person. Almost always, I will identify myself as Xicana. Understanding the history behind these shifting identifications—and particularly the history of the word Hispanic—can help us better understand the challenges this term has created.
Well into the 1970s, before we were Hispanic, we were marked by our own nationalities or our ancestral identities. In Texas communities like El Paso, we were Chicanos, Mexicanos or Tejanos. In New York City, folks were often Puerto Ricans or Cubans.
1980 marked the first year that the U.S. Census offered Hispanic as an option for describing ethnic identity on the short form, the form that went to all households. The form offered a list of those who might choose to identify as “Spanish/Hispanic,” including people who identified as “Mexican,” “Mexican-Amer.,” “Chicano,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban” or “other Spanish/Hispanic.”
Federal recognition of a single Hispanic ethnic identity was a strategic goal of Hispanic community organizers, who hoped to create a collective identity that people from a group of countries colonized by Spain could use to exert political and economic power. In a discussion of her book Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New America, Cristina Mora notes, “Organizations and institutions invest in keeping these terms as broad as possible.” Media companies like Univision therefore supported recognitions that would allow them to appeal to a wider consumer market in the United States.
The idea was to leverage this power to address shared concerns, improving the material conditions of communities that shared ancestral geography and, in some instances, the Spanish language. In many ways, the adoption of a broad, Hispanic identity helped organizers achieve these goals. It is undeniable that there is economic benefit and political power in the use of Hispanic.
But we can’t discount the perhaps-unintentional effects of this intentional effort. We must ask, “Which communities within the spectrum of Hispanic people have seen benefits from this broad, consolidated identity? What has happened in communities that haven’t seen the benefits? For whom have conditions remained stagnant or even deteriorated?”
And, perhaps most critically, “Who gains from erasing specific experiences of individual people and diverse cultural identities within the Hispanic community?”
Ethnic Homogenization Is Anti-black
In the attempt to build political power through pan-ethnic solidarity, particularly vulnerable populations have been excluded from the benefits of that power. In the most extreme cases, Hispanic identity has been used by some to uphold and excuse anti-black violence. We might remember the conversations that unfolded during the George Zimmerman trial. Commentators often conflated ethnic and racial identity to argue that Zimmerman couldn’t be racist because he’s “Hispanic, not white.”
In the past few years, the exploration of anti-blackness in Hispanic communities has entered the mainstream. Organizations like the National Latina Institute and publications such as Everyday Feminism articulate the pervasiveness of anti-blackness in Hispanic communities and name strategies for dismantling this oppression within our own families and beyond. Less visible in this mainstream conversation is the argument put forth by Afro-Latinx organizers, artists and writers themselves.
When visualizing those most affected by the national debate on immigration, for example, more often than not we picture the face of a non-black person. To do so is to ignore those who share both blackness and Hispanic identities. In this case, the homogenization of the groups that are supposed to be represented by the word Hispanic has obscured the experiences of Hispanic people who are also black.
During my first year of teaching in the predominantly Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, I witnessed the necessity of honoring the specific identities of Afro-Latinx students. Both my students and I were considered Hispanic under the definition put forth by the Census Bureau, but there were stark differences in our experiences of Latinidad because of our racial identities.
In the Classroom
There is no perfect pathway or absolute language for recognizing both the shared and unique experiences within Hispanic communities. However, one way to start is to make space for the unmaking of the word Hispanic. As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, here are some ways to do so:
- Dispel the mainstream myth of a homogenous Hispanic identity by discussing the racial spectrum of experience held under the term Hispanic.
- Discuss the contention around the words Hispanic and Latinx. Explain that these terms are not universally accepted.
- Ask Latinx and Hispanic students (or their families) how they identify themselves before assigning these labels to them. Ask all students (or their families) their racial or ethnic identities before assigning labels to them.
- Highlight the work of organizations, like Undocublack, that expand the traditional imagery of an immigrant.
- Explain that Hispanic history is Black history. Listen to the stories of Afro-Latinx communities.
- Explore the creation of the word Hispanic as a category in the U.S. Census.
- Resist highlighting exclusively Mexican history, culture, events or people.
- Prepare your own understandings of racial and ethnic identities, including the differences between the terms Hispanic and Latinx.
- Familiarize yourself with U.S. Latinx civil rights history.
Bernal-Martinez is TT’s Teaching and Learning Specialist and a Xicana documentary artist and educator.