Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month

By Will Shakespeare

Groundcover vendor No. 258

Mural for National Hispanic Heritage Month by David Valdez

“We celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month to recognize the achievements and contributions of Hispanic American champions who have inspired others to achieve success.” — The National Archives, 2021

Hispanic Heritage Month is seen as a celebration of histories, cultures and contributions of Americans who have ancestral roots from Spain, France, Portugal, Africa and indigenous Native American Indians. Mass media and some historians describe Hispanic Americans as people who have ancestors from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The African and Indigenous ancestral roots of Hispanic-speaking Americans are often overlooked in discourse and TV portrayals. 

A new generation of activists and scholars are calling for a more inclusive and a more diverse representation of Hispanic Americans. Why should Portuguese-speaking Brazil be excluded? There is currently a movement to correct the historical and cultural omissions, and of course, the historical distortions. As we celebrate National Hispanic Month, there will be many art exhibits, lectures and symposia which use interchangeable terms such as “Latinos,” “Latina” or “Latinx.”

Public Law 90-48 of September 17, 1968 requested that the United States President issue an annual proclamation declaring September 15 the start of a Hispanic Heritage Week. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Congressional Bill into law and challenged Americans, especially the academic communities, to observe the Hispanic Heritage Week, “with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” Scholars and historians, including those at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., have said that September 15 was selected because it represented the anniversary of independence for the Central American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile declared their independence from Spain on September 16 and 18 respectively.

It is also important to note that the Hispanic Heritage Celebration was changed from a week long event to a month long event. Congressional Republicans wanted to include Columbus Day of October 11 as part of the National Hispanic Heritage Month. President Ronald Reagan signed the Congressional bill into law on August 17, 1988.  

In 1987, Professor Ivan Van Sertima of Rutgers University was invited to testify before Congress on the merits of recognizing the 500th anniversary of “Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.” In his testimony, he said, “You cannot really conceive of how insulting it is to Native Americans … to be told they were discovered.” Van Sertima wrote a controversial 1976 best-seller book titled, “They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America.”

Understanding the Indigenous and African Heritage/History of Latin America and the Caribbean

In October 2019, Groundcover News published an article titled, “National Hispanic Heritage and History Month: Ancient American civilization, colonization and independence.” We have been following the past and the current debates within academia, and also those taking place in the Latino/Hispanic/Caribbean communities. There are poignant questions in these communities about inclusion and exclusion of some facts regarding historical origins. Should we include our indigenous Native American heritage? Should we include our African heritage as part of our identity? Although Hispanic Americans or Latino Americans are the dominant identifiers for this month’s celebration, there is movement on the U-M campus and many other campuses to use the term “Latinx” as the most inclusive identifier.

Historian Paul Gilroy’s book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, inspired renewed scholarship into the Indigenous and African roots of modern day Hispanic and Latino populations. Robert Farris Thompson’s work also examined the introduction of Africans to the New World—The African Diaspora in Latin America. Writing in the 2005 Journal of Latin American Studies, historian Juliet Hooker claimed that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) had stated that there are approximately 38-40  million (8%) indigenous people in Latin America, and about 150 million individuals of African descent (30%). The ECLAC report continues, “The Afro Latino population is mainly concentrated in Brazil, Central America, and the northern coast of South America. Furthermore, the UNESCO World History project had reported that the transatlantic slave trade through the “Middle Passage” involved about 12.6 million people from Africa. Only 10.7 million survived the perilous journey. UNESCO also said less than 400,000 of the slaves were brought to North America. The rest of the slaves were sent to Brazil, other Latin American countries and the Caribbean.

 A Celebration of Cultures and Contributions

The PEW Research Center released a report on the 2020 census on September 9. The population of Hispanic Americans is 62 million, making them the largest minority group in the United States. Recent immigration, birth rates, better income opportunity, health care and higher life expectancy have contributed to the population increase in the Hispanic American community. When immigrants arrive in America, they bring their cultures, ideas and innovations. For example, Cuban Americans in South Florida have brought their rich cultural heritage and influences in the areas of music, food,  dance and festivals. Miami’s population is approximately 35% Cuban Americans. The Calle Ocho neighborhood is described as Little Havana. The fun, excitement and the dynamism of the population during big community festivals have helped to solidify Miami’s nickname, “The Magic City.”

The salsa dance is popular in most places in the Americas. Ms. Celia Cruz, “The Queen of Salsa,” has made this dance style and music very popular across generations. Spanish dance can be seen in big cities, college towns and urban counties across America. In California and Texas, revelers look forward to watching dancers who wear colorful costumes and do the traditional Mexican or Central American dance. At the University of Michigan, there were students groups who organized “The PUENTES Salsa Social on September 26. The Arab Student Association and La Casa will present “Teach Me How to Dance Dabke and Salsa” on October 7, 8 p.m. at the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center.   The Hispanic American food culture is highly ubiquitous ever since the Hollywood movie stars gave their thumbs up to taco meals and all sorts of Mexican and Latin American food presentations. The average Americans cannot seem to have enough of those ethnic cuisines. There are dozens of Mexican restaurants in Washtenaw County. There may be a few thousand in the state of Michigan, and perhaps, millions across the American landscape. Muchas gracias!

Hispanic American labor activists and civil rights leaders such as Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez made lots of contributions during the 1960s and 1970s. Singer and activist Joan Baez and hundreds of thousands of Americans demonstrated at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, and witnessed Dr. King give the indelible “I Have a Dream” speech. 

The civil rights movement helped to open the doors of opportunity for Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, women and other people of color. There are today several Congressmen, Congresswomen, and Senators of Hispanic heritage. President Barack Obama nominated the first Hispanic American to the Supreme Court — Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It should be noted that during World War II, about 300,000 Americans of Hispanic heritage fought and helped win the war against Nazi Germany. 

America’s current Poet Laureate is Joy Harjo. America’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017 was Juan Felipe Herrera. Harjo is an Indigenous Native American and Herrera is the son of a Mexican migrant farm worker. They both received MFA degrees from the University of Iowa’s Creative Writing Program, and have made a difference in this artistic genre. Because of his life experience as a child of immigrant farm-workers in California, Poet Herrera’s writings have included the questions of identity and social justice. Similarly, Poet Harjo’s style is to talk of the injustice suffered by Native American Indians. She uses oral history methods to tell the story of the indigenous community and their struggles for preserving their identity, language, and culture. 

Hispanic and Latino Americans have made enormous contributions to America’s robust economic prosperity. Writer Mireya Loza wrote a book which documented 100 years of the Mexican Guest Worker Program in the United States. In farm agriculture, there is always a steady supply of cheap labor. In construction, manufacturing and service, Hispanic Americans have provided the labor to keep the U.S. economy humming and growing. Loza expressed her apprehension over the unequal treatment of Mexico’s migrant/guest workers compared to immigrants from other parts of the world. She asked, “So, after 100 years of guest workers policies, do we continue to create an unequal system in which a group of people are only valued as laborers, and never given an opportunity of true belonging as American Citizens?” In the fields of health care, education and other professional vocations, Hispanic Americans are harnessing excellence with diversity. There are barriers in STEM education and careers. However, there are hopeful signs in the pipelines for STEM success in college and the workforce.

Finally, we are celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month when America has achieved higher vaccination rates and improved adherence to mask wearing in in-door facilities and crowded venues.  We urge our readers to visit U-M, EMU, and Washtenaw Community College websites in order to see listed events such as symposia, lectures, art displays, dancing, etc. LA CELEBRACION LATINX! !!! HISPÁNICO!!!

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