By Laura E. Gómez
How many of the nation’s 62 million Latinos react with an eye-roll every September 15, when Hispanic Heritage Month begins?
My own ambivalence stems from multiple sources. For one thing, I hate the word “Hispanic” — a term popularized in the 1970s to refer jointly to Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans. Before this time, these groups were viewed as separate groups living in far-flung regions in the Southwest, Northeast, and South Florida, respectively. Today, Latinos live in every state and in 2020, for the first time, exceed 10 percent of these states’ populations well beyond those traditional homelands: Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wyoming.
Like Hispanic, Latino is a pan-ethnic term broad enough to encompass various national origin groups who have histories going back centuries in the United States, from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba in the Caribbean to Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in Central America to Mexico. Latinos from these groups make up more than 95% of all American Latinos.
“Today there are 47.4 million more American Latinos than there were in 1988 when Hispanic Heritage Month was first established. It’s past time for Congress to change the name.”
Latino — along with its variants Latina and Latinx — has supplanted Hispanic among younger people, in more urbanized states, and certainly among political progressives. But many prefer specific national origin terms when they describe their identities, like Mexican American. What Latinos call themselves is situational, shaped by whether they are speaking English or Spanish, whether they are at work or home, whether they are asked their preference by an in-group or out-group member, and the like.
I was surprised to learn recently that Lyndon B. Johnson signed the law establishing Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan signed legislation extending the week to 30 days and designating it National Hispanic Heritage Month.
“Why not Hispanic History Month? Significantly, Black History Month and Women’s History Month sought to revise American history to include people who had been left out . . .”
But it isn’t really a month, like Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. Instead, we get two weeks in September and two weeks in October supposedly to celebrate Mexico’s 1821 independence from Spain, which took place on September 16. I have nothing against that day, but since 80 percent of Mexican Americans are citizens and since many of them are two or more generations removed from Mexico, why peg this country’s supposed celebration of us to a foreign country’s independence day?
Another problem I have is with the word “heritage” which connotes culture or ancestry. Why not Hispanic History Month? Significantly, Black History Month and Women’s History Month sought to revise American history to include people who had been left out of the “great man” mode of history that focused almost exclusively on white men. They became avenues for broadening American history in the popular sense but also, importantly, in elementary, middle, and high school history books.
Today there are 47.4 million more American Latinos than there were in 1988 when Hispanic Heritage Month was first established. It’s past time for Congress to change the name. Come 2022, let’s hope we can celebrate Latina/o/x History Month.
Laura E. Gómez is a professor of law, sociology, and Chicana/Chicano studies at UCLA and is the author of Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism.