Hispanic Heritage Month – what can be said. When I was young, Hispanic Heritage Month was celebrated as a time when we, as a nation, looked back at the inspiring and groundbreaking Latinos that have shaped the country as it stands today. We would decorate the classrooms with flags, colorful confetti, cut-outs of ballet folklorico dancers, and even play Selena music during our free writing time. Those were the days of little Emily realizing the beauty of Hispanic culture; my own culture.
While those memories of celebrating people like Jovita Idár and Caesar Chavez allowed me to see the immense capabilities of Hispanics and their strides to make our modern-day a better, safer, more diverse, and more productive place, it didn’t take long for me to soon realize that those people didn’t shape who I was. Those suffragists, advocates, and pioneers of the olden times, were not me. They didn’t prepare me to embark on my own journey or guide me toward enhancing the mission of advocating for the inclusion of more Hispanics in various institutions of our societal spheres. How could I, a first-generation Mexican-American Latina, living in the 21st century ever take their glory as my own? In many ways, and as I have learned throughout my years of education, activism, research, and internal identity struggles, Hispanic Heritage Month is not just about who came before us but rather who will come after.
Being the first in my family, both domestically and abroad, to attend a four-year university in the United States was not an easy feat. I can remember the days of walking the sidewalks of Abilene Christian University (ACU), wearing my dark skinny jeans, flannel shirt, dark blue glasses, and high-top boots (the fashion, at the time), thinking to myself, ‘I fit in here. I am just like everybody else.’ Only to catch a glimpse of myself in a window and see that was not the case. My body’s curves and hips didn’t ‘fit’ like everybody else. My dark brown hair, eyes, and skin didn’t ‘fit’ like everybody else. My identity struggles of being asked questions related to my exact ethnicity or parent’s legal standing didn’t ‘fit’ like everybody else. It wasn’t ACU that made me feel out of place. One thing became very clear to me — I was Latina. And yet, I couldn’t (or maybe didn’t) know what that meant.
So, when Hispanic Heritage Month rolled around every September, it often felt like an opening to be the real me. The me that actually wanted to wear certain clothing. The me that wanted to dance to cumbia, merengue, salsa, and reggaeton. The me that wanted to eat tacos, talk about culture, and study how other people interact in diverse environments. That was the me I wanted to be in college. And for some reason, Hispanic Heritage Month turned out to be the only opening to be authentically Latina without forgetting that the primary reason for the month — remembering those who came before me. Being the journalism major I was, I remember asking myself questions that would soon come to me later in life: What’s the point of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month? Who really benefits from it if not for the dead? Is it really just a chance to be culturally accepted for a brief moment? What change, if any, can occur because of our celebration?
And maybe those thoughts are not acceptable or even frowned upon considering the immense advantages and progress we’ve made thus far. But those were real, and they needed to be answered.
Today, I look back at my time in college with a new perspective on the girl who kept asking those questions. As a second-year doctoral student studying mass communications at the University of Oklahoma, I must give her props. Those core questions ought to be answered. Those questions resting in a post-modernist approach should propel all Latinos to consider their reasonings for celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. Are we celebrating the past? Or are we using the past to push ourselves to shape the future?
With over 23% of Latinos earning a bachelor’s degree and over 2.5 million Latinos in the United States holding advanced degrees like a master’s or doctorate, it seems as though Latinos are becoming more prepared to use the work conducted by historically influential Hispanics and build on it. As a researcher and lifelong learner, it’s crucial to examine how the impacts of tomorrow can begin today. Our mindset should be re-established in growth, productivity, excellence, grit, and strength to become resilient to the pain suffered today for a more prosperous and impactful tomorrow. Not to be stuck in a fixed mindset that sits on the backs of those who suffered before us.
In many ways, it’s a waste to spend a single day thinking about what we don’t have as a demographic group. It’s a waste of time to complain about how non-Latinos don’t see the value of Hispanic Heritage Month. It benefits no one when Latinos choose to reminisce rather than act. And yes, a foundational component of our Latino culture is to honor our ancestors and elders. Still, though, that doesn’t mean we should sit and thank them for their dreams, service, and actions while we remain stagnant. The actions that we can begin today expand far and wide and include things like teaching in K-12 classrooms, managing businesses, treating patients, passing legislation, advocating for social justice, raising children, starting nonprofits, mentoring students, finding scientific cures, holding office, and even encouraging others to find their place in society.
And that’s the beauty behind celebratory seasons like Hispanic Heritage Month; there’s always time to do things a different way. There’s enough time to switch our mindset. The revitalization of self-identification of many first, second, and third-generation Latinos doesn’t need to wait until next year’s culturally acceptable opportunity.
The work can begin when we, as a group, choose for it to begin. Let us honor the past by pushing forward, inspiring new generations, and building on the legacy we can – and will – establish in our lifetime.
And maybe play Selena while we’re at it.