It is that time of the year when we celebrate Latinx/é and Hispanic American people and all of the contributions, vibrant color, immaculate flavors, and extraordinary art, to name just a few, that help make our country great. National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 to October 15. Rather than at the beginning of the month, the period aligns with September 15 in honor of the Independence Day anniversaries for five Latin American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Mexico’s independence is celebrated on the September 16, and Chile celebrates independence on September 18.
Now, before the celebratory aspects, I would like to clarify a few things. For those who are unaware, “Latiné” can be used as an alternative, more inclusive term in comparison to “Latinx,” which caters to English speakers. The more gender-neutral term in Spanish would be ending in “é.” Also, “Latinx/é” or “Latina/o” refers to a person who is from, or a descendant of someone who is from, a country in Latin America, whereas “Hispanic” refers to a person who is from, or a descendant of someone who is from, a Spanish-speaking country. We often avoid the existing tensions between Latinx/é communities and their feelings on the word “Hispanic” as a catch-all label for such diverse and unique groups, so I want to acknowledge that here.
Additionally, many times we forget our Afro-Latinx/é and Indigenous communities when thinking of these terms, so it is important to acknowledge that these communities are valued, recognized, and included. Lastly, it should be acknowledged that celebration and appreciation of these communities should not be restricted to a 30-day period, but rather, commemorated throughout the year. With this in mind, the Latinx/é, Hispanic, Afro-Latinx/é, and Indigenous communities of the United States have progressed so far to receive recognition in this country, stemming back to when it was originally just a designated week of celebration. I want to celebrate the trailblazers that got our communities here, and the present-day leaders actively advocating on our behalf, but also to shine light on the work that still needs to be done.
According to the 2020 U.S. census, the Hispanic and Latinx/é population is more than 62.1 million people, which is 18.7% of the population. This is a great leap from the previous 50.5 million people (16.3%) recorded from the 2010 census data. The growth we see only underscores that these communities are so important, and if they represent about 18% of the population, then proportionate representation is required. The new 2020 presidential election data also shows a 6% spike in voter turnout among Hispanic and Latinx/é Americans from 48% to 54%. This increase in activism and civic engagement can be credited to many factors, but it is important to highlight those who stood up and stood out for what they believe in.
The first person, I would like to highlight is Afro-Puerto Rican and Venezuelan civil rights activist and pioneer for the LGBTQ+ community, Sylvia Rivera. She was one of the leading individuals in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and is known for amplifying her voice and advocating for those most vulnerable in marginalized communities.
As a member of the transgender community and Afro-Latina woman, Rivera was not accepted in the women or gay liberation movements, which assimilated mainstream American culture – namely, movements that catered to white cisgender women and white cisgender gay men. Despite the barriers in front of Rivera, she persevered and co-founded the organization, S.T.A.R., with Marsha P. Johnson. S.T.A.R. which aided homeless transgender and gender non-conforming people by providing food and shelter. As Black and Brown transgender youths are some of the most vulnerable individuals across the country, I want to thank Sylvia Rivera and other trailblazers like her for blazing the path that has empowered this country to fight against anti-trans rights and anti-LGBTQ+ rights overall.
Another revered individual I would like to acknowledge is Dominican-American poet, novelist, and essayist Julia Alvarez. Born in a time where Latinx/é literature and writers in the U.S. were largely unheard of, Julia, age 41 with over 20 years of experience teaching English and creative writing, managed to publish her first novel, “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.” This novel launched her successful career and place in history as a writer who shines light on the experiences and struggles of immigrants assimilating into American culture – still a challenge for many families today, and an example of the many obstacles and challenges that continue to oppress our communities.
Next, the unsung hero and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Sylvia Mendez, who helped paved the way for desegregating schools in the U.S. with her family. She became the first Mexican American to attend an all-white school in California where she faced discrimination; her family’s accomplishments were seldom talked about. An informative read pertaining to education disparities can be found here, which discusses Sylvia Mendez’s family and other Latinx/é families who fought the class action lawsuit for the integration of schools seven years before the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t spotlight the famous organizer, feminist, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Dolores Clara Fernandez, better known as Dolores Huerta. During her time as an organizer with the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO), Dolores founded the Agricultural Workers Association, set up voter registration drives, and pressured local governments to improve low-income neighborhoods.
After leaving CSO, she and famous activist, Cesar Chavez, founded the National Farm Workers Association. As a Latina woman and a leader in advocacy, she has noted facing greater challenges in comparison to her male counterparts. She played a key role in passing the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. This legislation was the first of its kind, allowing farmworkers of California to organize and negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions. Along with these accomplishments, Dolores also broke down gender barriers within the farmworkers’ movement, resulting in tremendous progress for women everywhere.
While this history and stories are not necessarily “happy” ones, these periods and moments of challenge and struggle are what led to amazing milestones for Hispanic and Latinx/é communities. Although we have a new administration in office, we cannot ignore the fact that the former, impeached president framed our communities as “invaders” and “foreigners,” among other terms, who are not “American.” His racist ideologies, which existed long before he ran for office, still place a stronghold on our institutions and the minds of many in this nation. In addition to racial injustice, hostility remains toward our communities when it comes to our borders, farmworker labor rights, and our education systems. As a result, in an effort to combat the forces of oppression, we now have many Hispanic and Latinx/é leaders in positions of power today. I would like to highlight two extraordinary leaders who are doing great work for the future of Hispanic and Latinx/é communities.
Marco Davis, the son of Mexican and Jamaican immigrants, is president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering the next generation of Hispanic and Latinx/é leaders. He also is an Independent Sector board member. The CHCI programs offer internships and fellowships to students and young professionals seeking to make a difference in their communities through public policy.
At Independent Sector, we value and prioritize advocacy and civic engagement, as these are fundamental aspects to making change within our communities. I commend Marco Davis for his work and dedication as an Afro-Latino American enabling future generations to succeed.
Next, I want to highlight Sindy Benavides, a Honduran-American immigrant who is CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Hispanic organization in the U.S. LULAC advances the interests of Hispanic and Latinx/é Americans through community-based programming. Whether it’s providing millions of dollars in scholarships each year, or implementing citizenship and voter registration drives, LULAC supports our communities on the local, state, and national levels. As a leader, Sindy is exemplary in serving as a role model for women, immigrants, and young people aspiring to make a difference.
All things considered, there are so many people and rich history to celebrate during this month. Without question, the names of those I have highlighted are only a few who deserve recognition. But they represent those who took the untrodden path to fight for many of the issues that Hispanic and Latinx/é communities face to this day. I would also like to note Independent Sector’s toolkit, which provides resources on how to effectively practice and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. With so many efforts discouraging this kind of education, we feel it is beneficial to share these resources during this special time that promotes these very practices. If you’re in Washington, D.C., please visit this site that outlines events happening throughout this amazing month of celebration. On a final note, while celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month allows our country to share its support for these communities, it is also a reminder to practice love, acceptance, and appreciation for all cultures, walks-of-life, and people at all times.
The top photo of Dolores Huerta is by Gage Skidmore. Huerta is seen at a March 2016 rally in Phoenix, Arizona. The photo is shared under a creative commons license.