Latinx Heritage Month: Then and Now
I don’t recall ever learning about Hispanic (as the bill was initially written) Heritage in school—I can’t think of one Latino figure of note in our curriculum. Although Congress expanded the celebration acknowledging the contribution of Latinos in our country to last an entire month in 1989, as I entered first grade.
The Hispanic Heritage bill was initially signed into federal law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 as a week-long celebration. During the late ’60s the country was combusting with revolution. Activists protested Vietnam, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, joined prominent feminists to launch the National Organization for Women (NOW), and on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Civil rights activists warred with government for a society that made good on its Constitutional promise: “liberty and justice for all.”
Latinos had been the target of discrimination for centuries. Lynchings, school segregation, and mass deportations of Latinos are recorded in US history as early as the mid-1800s. One Chicano civil rights activist, Esteban Torres, rose in political ranks to become a Representative in California and submitted a bill in 1987 to expand Hispanic Heritage Week. “We want the public to know that we share a legacy with the rest of the country, a legacy that includes artists, writers, Olympic champions, and leaders in business, government, cinema, and science.” He wrote to Congress explaining that the extension of the legislation would “allow our Nation to properly observe and coordinate events and activities to celebrate Hispanic culture and achievement.” That bill died in committee, but an amended bill, one written by Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, passed and was signed into law by President Ronald W. Reagan on August 17, 1988.
Simultaneously, the “Hispanic” category on the national census was established. The Washington Census director consulted with Latino advocacy groups, such as the National Council of La Raza; the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, to research and poll Latino opinion finally settling on a term many now reject: Hispanic.
Census data gave activists, lobbyists and civic organizations the power to acquire federal funds, political influence and much deserved recognition. Cristina Mora, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR, “They could go up to the Department of Education, for example, and say, “Latinos are the second-largest minority group. And yet, our educational attainment pales to that of whites. Send money to our schools.”
Over time Hispanic Heritage Month has become heavily commercialized. Given the rise of terms like Latinx, the community itself continues to wrestle with its need for representation and the outdated mechanisms that are leveraged to determine their capitalistic worth. This is exacerbated in the modern era, given the rhetoric of the current administration occupying the White House. Struggling to be seen as the multi-ethnic group we truly are, frustration has grown over the monolithic approach to our diverse cultures and the appropriation that ensues.
With no clear path forward, the growing number of advocates pushing for a more inclusive approach may one day see it come to fruition. Many Latinx’s are now utilizing the month-long celebration to point out its flaws, and reclaim it by carving out spaces that make room for a wider net of voices.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess, but we hope everyone will join the conversation.