Hispanic Heritage Month? Who cares? I do, and you should too!
Every year, as HHM begins on September 15th, I brace myself for the underwhelming reaction that 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 and Carlos Santana 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 to know my peeps warranted an annual celebration porque, back then, being Hispanic wasn’t cool.
In 1982, I’d just graduated college and desperately wanted to put my Spic days behind me, along with the fear and the shame, that had resulted from 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 could sense that my teachers didn’t think Latino kids would amount to much and that stung. I 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 whom I wanted to instill with pride about who they were. I started to realize that all of the American History they were memorizing and that I’d been brainwashed by wasn’t even my people’s history, as it hadn’t included anything about my ancestors’ history. This epiphany was traumatic and tragic 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 – trying to embolden my children’s academic curricula to include more involvement in Hispanic Heritage Month – with school administrators quite exasperated with me.
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. I also demanded that my rich American conglomerate show me the money when it came to their investment in honoring HHM. I even went so far as to risk my position in establishing the first HHM event my company hosted in our region.
I pushed and prodded and annoyed many just so that our children and my fellow Hispanics would be proud of our cultural roots, while capitalizing on the potential that the federally recognized Hispanic Heritage Month offered. Our kids and our elders need to inspired and honored annually so that we can better build our future.
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 and the like. Our community’s accomplishments deserve more attention.
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. Let’s not waste the visibility and opportunities to educate and enlighten during our designated month to shine. Please make the most out of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month in honor of our children and their future.