Hispanic Heritage Month is a form of tokenism
September 5, 2001
I hate Hispanic Heritage Month.
Designating one month in the year to an entire group of people belittles the many cultural systems, economic contributions and historical legacies of that group.
As the executive director of Centro Hispano -- a social service agency for Latinos -- I start to get calls during the summer about Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 until Oct. 15. People want to know what events we are organizing, whether I could make a speech about Hispanics and provide learning materials about our culture.
Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled when people want to learn about races and ethnicities different from their own. And as a former teacher, I encourage learning that helps us better understand one another.
But in the process, my entire identity, historical legacy and rich cultural heritage should not be reduced to a soundbite. The United States has 33 million Latinos from more than 20 different countries and various linguistic groups. To pile us all into one group and give us "special attention" only during this month is disrespectful and condescending.
Who came up with the idea to designate months to celebrate one group of people? Good intentions and motivations don't always translate into well-thought-out practices. PBS runs documentaries; teachers highlight Cesar Chavez and serve tacos; party stores sell "fiesta" plates and party accessories for events.
Trivalizing a group of people to "food, fiesta and fun" is demeaning and promotes stereotypes. We have to care about "them" only once a year, and then the rest of the year we can forget they exist.
We should look more closely at how we view groups and subgroups in this country, and what place they have at the table. How do we learn about them? How do we interact with them?
For educators, pushing one group of people during a particular month isn't an effective way to teach. History teachers, who usually follow a linear timeline, cannot thoroughly cover the contributions made by Latinos in just one month. Why do many students learn about the Mexican-American War during Hispanic Heritage Month? It wasn't fought just during September and October. And the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo wasn't signed during Hispanic Heritage Month either.
We need to acknowledge the contributions made by Latinos in the United States throughout the year. Teachers, administrators and students need to be conscious of gaps in history books, and they need to fill in those omissions appropriately.
When studying westward expansion, educators should not gloss over Tejanos, Californios and others who helped shape the history of the Americas. And we need to do a better job of teaching our children about ancient cultures and peoples of the Americas -- like the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas -- who enriched our history. We should encourage excitement in recent anthropological findings in Central America and share this with students. These are our ancient roots.
Latinos will continue to be part of the history and future of this country as we have for centuries. We don't need a month to remind us of that.
Lucia Nunez (accent over second n) is the executive director of Centro Hispano of Dane County, a social service agency that addresses the needs of Latinos in Wisconsin. She can be reached at email@example.com.