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Culture Focus

An Overlooked Identity: Hispanics and Their Struggles to Celebrate their Heritage

Puerto Ricans celebrate at the Puerto Rican Pride Parade in NYC. Image source: Medium

“We have not given justice to the Spanish Pioneers…simply because we have been misled,” wrote Native American activist Charles Lummis in 1893. To him, the Hispanics “made a record unparalleled; but our textbooks have not recognized that fact.”  Almost 130 years later, his comments about the Hispanic contribution to the world remain true; no one remembers us, even when there is one month dedicated to recognizing our identity.

In comparison to other holidays, Hispanic Heritage Month, which takes place in the US from September 15 to October 15, is a modest observance. The events organized around this holiday are few and insufficiently advertised. It is even difficult as a Hispanic to be aware of the celebrations. “I can’t say I’ve been aware that it’s been a thing for more than two years,” Laura Herrera, a Colombian Hispanic explains. Likewise, Guatemalan Hispanic Jason Aloyo says   “it is difficult” to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month because “I don’t have a lot of Hispanic friends.” Their remarks hint at a reality in which our identity is present but remains unnoticed.

Other events tend to overshadow the month when we are able to recognize our heritage. In September alone, eight mostly-Hispanic countries celebrate their independence, and their individual national festivities receive more attention than events that commemorate the overall sense of Hispanic-ness. This agglomeration of important dates was the main reason why Congressman Roybal and President Johnson officially started the holiday in 1966, but people are more drawn toward celebrating their individual country’s heritage rather than the collective identity. Yet perhaps the most eclipsing date is that of “Columbus Day.”  Every year, protests against “colonization” make us forget that the day is an important one to Hispanics; October 12 symbolizes the moment when our identity began, as Spain started to merge with other cultures, including the Native Americans. The reality is that the current circumstances over Columbus Day, while raising issues that should be considered, make us at the same time forget issues crucial to Hispanics.

Even still, we can always count on politicians to remember us Hispanics. For instance, Mayor Kenney of Philadelphia had a chance to speak about our contribution to Philadelphia at the city’s Hispanic Heritage Month Gala. President Trump also gave some remarks on September 28, acknowledging that “Hispanic Americans have been a big part of our national story from the very, very beginning of our country.” To me, these acts are mere political moves to gather support from a large minority; as of 2017, Hispanics made up 18.1% of the total population, so we should be a strong, united force rather than mere votes. I do not want to see my culture used for political gains, but both Hispanics and non-Hispanics have to overcome certain issues first.

First, we need to stop sponsoring Hispanic fragmentation. Within this cultural group there is diversity, and we should appreciate it.  However, I feel that our members focus on our differences, which makes everyone unwilling to work with each other. Thus, Hispanics must overlook distinctions and find a common ground where we can work as one people. Ultimately, we have similar struggles such as immigration, and we share one language and faith. 

As residents of the United States, Hispanics also have to overcome the identity paradigm in American culture. Here, one’s sense of belonging is often divided by race and language, and if one does not conform to this biracial, English-speaking identity, society considers this person an outsider. Many Hispanics do assimilate into American culture, but they forget their language and abandon their heritage. Celebrating Hispanic-ness thus is a difficult act because it recognizes a group that does not fit in the majority. I would still love to see a United States where we move away from that identity paradigm and start accepting others no matter their background. It may be necessary to teach others the norm, but one should never look down or force others to behave like an “archetypal American.” The current political climate is not helping Hispanics, but one should at least try and move away from such prejudices. 

Yet the biggest obstacle to Hispanic Heritage is the Black Legend, a historical misinterpretation of the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas. This take on such events divides Hispanics into  European and American (i.e. from the Americas), and holds that the former only stole, raped, and abused the latter. By this interpretation, Spaniards and Hispanics are different and the result of a conquering dynamic, but that is wrong; we are one people that would not exist without the often conflictive interaction between Europeans, Natives, and other groups back 500 years ago, even though people fail to recognize such a reality. Many Hispanics still believe that they are a conquered people, a notion frequently reinforced by Americans who also hold the Black Legend to be true. With this subconscious mentality it is difficult to develop a sense of pride and identity, especially because the aspects that unite us–language, faith, and history– are frowned upon.

We Hispanics are a people with an incomparable heritage that we should celebrate more, but first we must tackle some of the obstacles that prevent us from achieving that goal. While we may be proud of our Hispanic-ness, it is difficult to show it in the United States. Thus, Hispanic Heritage Month is an important observance that merits more attention and that provides a better opportunity to learn to be united. 

“I think being Guatemalan and Hispanic is the same” Aloyo explains, “Guatemalan is a category of being Hispanic, more specific.” I echo his feelings in that our cultural background should be as important as our national identities. Herrera adds that she is proud of her Hispanic-ness “because it is not just one country, it is a big group of cultures and I think it’s beautiful how every country has its own traditions and customs, but we share things in common.” 

As a cultural group, Hispanics have so many achievements and so much potential for the future that need to be recognized. With the collaborative efforts of Hispanics and non-Hispanics, I know that Hispanic appreciation will improve in the future.