On the Usefulness of Hispanic Heritage Month

This fine fall day – and it is a fine fall day: sunny, the leaves are changing and floating softly to the ground in a light breeze, it’s not hot – is the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month. I have mixed feelings about Hispanic Heritage Month, the same way I do about Women’s History Month, and African American History Month. If we just lived in a world that held the accomplishments of Latinxs, women, and African Americans in the same esteem as Anglo Americans, and if we had more fair representation in U.S. text books, we wouldn’t need these token months. Largely, months like these end up being used to assuage liberal guilt for the rest of the year when no one is held accountable for the monolithic literature, art, history, sociological perspective teachers assign. These are the special months where a teacher brushes the dust off their copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and shows their students art by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (even though they are solidly Mexican and therefore not “Latina/o” or "Hispanic"), and talks about how in the 1940s women got to put on pants and tie up their hair in red kerchiefs and that was very empowering.

But we do not live in society that respects the diverse achievements of women and people of color; we don’t even in live in society whose government is free from discriminatory speech (cough *Trump campaign* cough). So because we still have a long way to go, I too participate in using these token months to bring extra awareness (I say “extra” because I already assign primarily people of color and different genders/sexes in my classes).

For me, one of the ways to use Hispanic Heritage Month in a more nuanced way was to attempt to highlight the incredible differences that get swept into that pan-ethnic phrase. It’s significant to point out that all Latinxs in the U.S. are not Mexican and that even within national-identifications (Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan, etc.), there is a vast difference in phenotype (i.e. skin, eye, and hair color, bone structure, etc.).

The hegemonic masses tend to forget that all those countries speak Spanish because Spanish colonizers disrupted and often destroyed the lives of the indigenous peoples, eradicating their languages and religious/spiritual customs, replacing them instead with a mixture of indigenous and European, blood and custom. That, as well as generations and generations of more freedom to marry whomever you chose regardless of race/ethnicity, provides (dare I say it) a virtual rainbow of peoples. This variation of physical appearance in reference to Latinx identity is particularly important to me for very practical reasons – I have to provide a gawddamn family tree every time someone learns that I’m Mexican American (my preferred self-identification is Chicana, but one thing at a time . . .).

For instance, this past September, I was on a plane heading to California to spend my abuelo’s 90th birthday with him and our family. My uncles, dad, and I had been talking for months about it. There was going to be barbacoa, frijoles, arroz, fresh corn tortillas, rivers of Corona and Coors Light, and my one uncle even made a Mariachi Pandora channel to play during the party since we all agreed that Grandpa wouldn’t like a mariachi band enough to actually pay those prices (¡híjole, tan caro!). Tíos and primos, neighbors, and friends were invited. The festivities were going to be held in my abuelito’s backyard (one of my favorite places on this earth). Family pitched in to prune the nectarine trees, rake up the dead fruit, move old potted plants that were blocking parts of the patio, set up tables for food and enough chairs for the older people to be able to sit down. There were colorful streamers and signs, photos of Grandpa when he was in the military and of their wedding in Mexico. Basically, we were throwing a good old-fashioned Mexican Sunday gathering.

But back to the plane. So I’m sitting in my seat, reading for class, and this white woman sits next to me. She seems nervous, keeps craning her neck and turning in her seat to look out all the windows, keeps checking her phone. She finally says, in a muddled Southernish/Texan/Appalachian drawl that she was hoping to wave goodbye to her father who flew her there in a prop plane. He said he would wait to leave until her plane took off, but she couldn’t see him. Her parents (and herself) are from Kentucky and not far from the airport, but he’s older and she felt nervous leaving him to fly home by himself. Then she launches into the full story as to why she was in Kentucky, what was going on with the health of her parents, where she currently lives (Texas), etc. etc. I’m usually the person on a plane who nods politely and puts in earbuds whether or not I’m listening to anything to discourage people from chatting. I’m usually trying to get work done. She caught me before my earbuds were in though and I felt for her. My parents also have health problems, and it is hard to live far away.

After twenty minutes, she eventually starts asking me questions, starting with what I do for a living. She comments that I look too young to be a college professor (not according my students, I assure you), but then she wants to know what I teach. She asks what kind of literature and when I tell her ethnic American, she assumes I speak multiple languages.

“No,” I say. “These are U.S. writers of color, but they’re all U.S. citizens who primarily write in English, though there is often code switching, you know, like some words and phrases are in Spanish, but most of the book is in English.”

“Oh, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and that book that was made into a movie,” she says.

“Well, no. He’s actually Columbian, but lived a significant portion of his life in Mexico and wrote in Spanish. His books were all translated into English though,” I explain. “I mean more like Junot Díaz, Cherríe Moraga, Gary Soto.”

“Okay,” she says. “But why would you want to teach that. Do you know ethnic people?”

“I am an ethnic person,” I say. She looks at me quizzically. “I’m Mexican American.”

Her eyebrows raise in disbelief. She is looking at me hard now, squinting her eyes a bit.

“You don’t look Mexican,” she finally says. “And I live in Texas, I know what Mexicans look like.”

This has happened to me so many times, that it’s an effort not to exert an audible sigh. It’s at this point I should have just put my earbuds in and stopped talking to her, but instead I ask, “Alright, what exactly do Mexicans look like then?” To her credit, she began to talk slower, seeming to choose her words more carefully. She must have sensed she’d wandered into rocky territory.

“You know, like dark hair, dark eyes.”

“So you’re saying that all Mexicans, every single person from an entire country, including those who have always been in the U.S. – people of Mexican descent living in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and California all look the same and have the same dark hair and same dark eyes?” I feel myself going into teacher mode, my voice becoming creepily even, my face dropping expression, attempts to appear neutral. I have to sit by her for three more hours and I don’t want it to become uncomfortable because I told her she was narrow-minded and ignorant. But what she’s saying is ignorant, so like when talking to my students, I just keep asking questions. I suppose at that point I could have also told her that I’m only half, which I’m sure for her might have explained my body’s subversion of her ethnic stereotype, but I hate saying “only half.” I hate qualifying my right to identify with the culture I inherited just because someone else has a limited understanding of diversity. I hate having to apologize for my white mother or conversely, apologize for my 1.5 generation Mexican American father and for their intercultural love affair that ended, due in part to irreconcilable cultural differences. Apparently love doesn’t always “conquer all.”

Ultimately, though that part of our conversation was obnoxious and exhausting for me, I know she didn’t actually mean any harm (that harm is still caused when people didn't mean harm is a different conversation altogether). My guess is that despite having lived places were a lot of Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans also live, she probably doesn’t actually spend time with any of them. She never used the “my good friend is Mexican” line, but did talk about all her favorite Mexican restaurants, so it’s not an unsafe assumption that she has built her stereotypes off of the cooks, waiters, and other laborers she comes into contact with as she goes about her business. These moments are what “Hispanic” Heritage Month is for; this is the kind of casual discriminatory behavior I want to address when assigning Latinx writers in my classes. It is those kind of seemingly benign assumptions I wanted to counter when I planned a panel discussion for Hispanic Heritage Month in coordination with a Hispanic Heritage Month reading through the A.E. Stringer Visiting Writers Series. One of the four Latinx panelists, Dr. Andrea Duhon, a math professor who has been blazing a trail for women and Latinxs in that primarily white, male field, said near the end of the event to the 40+ students and community members in attendance, “If you all take nothing else away from this, at least remember that we are all different. Some of us have blue eyes and blonde hair. Some of us have brown eyes and brown hair. We all look different and even if we speak Spanish, there are so many different versions and dialects, even among people from the same country of origin. We are different socioeconomic classes; we have had different experiences.” ¡Simón esa!

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