Hispanic Heritage Month? Who cares? I do, and you should too!
Every year, as HHM rolls around on September 15th, I brace myself for the underwhelming reaction many people, organizations and educational institutions have. Compared to the deluge of support for Black History Month every February, what do we Latinos get every September? Nada.
I'm sure that back in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson first established a week for the celebration of Hispanic culture, he must have been impressed by contributions made by the likes of Cesar Chavez in establishing the United Farm Workers' Union or the trailblazing Herman Badilla in New York who would soon be elected as the first Hispanic member of Congress. Maybe Johnson also wanted to appear welcoming to the many refugees who were fleeing Fidel in Cuba, while thousands of Puerto Ricans were serving and dying in Vietnam while they remained banned from voting for their own Commander in Chief.
All-Star Hispanics like Rita Moreno, Roberto Clemente, Carlos Santana and Linda Ronstadt continued to impress in the 70s and 80s - culminating in President Ronald Reagan's expansion of Hispanic Heritage Month to an entire month in 1988.
I was 28 years old then and didn't know a thing about HHM and believe that many fellow Latinos were also unaware of this legally sanctioned cultural celebration. It would've been helpful to my low self-confidence back then to know that my peeps warranted an annual celebration. And, right here and now, let me just tell our younger Latinos that being Hispanic back in the day was a huge struggle. What your elders are telling you is true! Sometimes it felt like not a day went by when I wasn't forced to choose between blending in or getting my butt kicked - only then to feel shame no matter which way I went.
In 1982, I'd just graduated college and desperately wanted to put my Spic days behind me, along with the fear and years of being negatively stereotyped and marginalized. It would have helped to celebrate Hispanic heroes in school once a year to remind me that I could amount to something. Even though I was just a kid, I sensed that my teachers didn't think Latino kids would amount to much and that stung. I often felt forced to choose between American assimilation or a Puerto Rican life of little opportunity. How sad is that?
Fast forward to the 90s and, all of a sudden, I remember hearing rumblings about how the U.S. Census was reporting that Hispanics would soon be our nation's largest minority. By now I was raising my three sons and wanted to instill in them pride about who they were. I started to realize that all of the American History factoids they were memorizing - and that I'd been brainwashed by - wasn't even my ancestor's history. This epiphany was traumatic and a real wake up call to me as a parent and a prideful Puerto Rican.
By the time the 2010 U.S. Census came out and trumpeted that Hispanics were now the largest minority group in the country, I was already in the trenches of change. I'd begun trying to embolden my children's academic curricula to include more interest and involvement in Hispanic Heritage Month - only to be met with blank stares from school administrators who didn't like me.
Granted, I wasn't living in a state with a higher than average Latino population but again, it seemed to me that - if my brethren were now the largest minority group in the country - well then, wouldn't it be advantageous for all of us to know more about this younger and growing demographic representing more than 20 different Hispanic countries?
At the same time, I was also a highly visible hotshot Latina in Corporate America - considered a troublemaker in my demands for a level playing field regarding my career track. Trust me, this wasn't fun and often left me lonely, misunderstood and isolated. Still, I also demanded that my rich American conglomerate show me the money when it came to their investment in my Hispanic community during HHM. I even went so far as to risk my position by establishing the first Hispanic Heritage Month event my company had ever hosted in our region.
I pushed and prodded and annoyed so many just so that our children and my fellow Hispanics would have an annual opportunity to collectively be proud of our cultural roots, especially since it was already a federal initiative. Then I left the business world and my platform for advocacy changed.
With my corporate shackles gone, I could now specifically advocate for equal voting rights for my fellow Puerto Ricans living on the island of Puerto Rico who remain banned from voting for their own President of the United States. Annually, the existence of Hispanic Heritage Month is the perfect time in which to raise awareness about this injustice. For my brothers and sisters from other Latin countries, just imagine how much you could teach about your own special contributions or concerns to our broader Latino community and to the general population during HHM.
I remain dismayed and disheartened by the lack of participation and dinero spent on Hispanic Heritage Month awareness campaigns, school events, corporate sponsorships, college scholarship competitions, etc. - especially in Corporate America. Our community's accomplishments deserve more attention and additional dollars spent.
It's up to us, my fellow Latinos, to harness the monetary and political power of being the largest minority group in the United States. We can't afford to waste the visibility and the opportunities to educate and enlighten during our designated month to shine. Please, mi gente, make the most out of this year's Hispanic Heritage Month in honor of our children and their future. Viva los Latinos!