Hispanic Heritage Month began as a weeklong celebration in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan extended it to a month of recognition from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to encompass the national independence days of several Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively, and Día de la Raza on Oct. 12 falls within in the 30-day period as well.
Just as the celebration has evolved, so has the way those with Latin American roots living in the U.S. self-identify. Yes, the Hispanic in Hispanic Heritage Month remains, but many are looking for new pan-ethnic descriptors or choosing identifiers that really get to the heart of their respective cultures, identities, and histories.
Wendy Eloiza Córdova, coordinator for the César E. Chávez Center for Higher Education, discusses the importance of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month and the evolution of identity.
Q: Why is it important to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?
A: Heritage months help to amplify our histories, culture, identities within the diaspora, achievements, and reflect on the social issues that require awareness and advocacy. It’s about creating an opportunity for folks to be in relationship with their intersectional identities, while also thinking about the needs in our community such as educational justice, immigration justice, public health, the arts, entertainment and cultural representation.
And often, when we talk about Hispanic Heritage Month or Latino/a/x Heritage Month, we’re talking about our stories. We’re talking about our people, our gente’s stories. That includes the stories of those who are often marginalized within community, the ones that don’t come to the forefront, stories about Black Latinx folks, indigenous Latinx folks, queer Latinx folks and our Undocumented folks given the context of the U.S. We can start the conversation this month, but it really should be something we are thinking about all the time. How are we creating space for celebration and appreciation our heritage, country, and land while acknowledging continued inequities within our communities? When celebrating Heritage Month, whose narratives are we ignoring? It’s something we should be thinking about year-round.
Q: What was the origin of the term Hispanic?
A: Hispanic came around the time where the U.S. Census started to mandate collection of data for ethnic demographics. Before 1980, those of Latin American descent referred to as Spanish-speaking or Spanish origin. Then, we rolled out Hispanic, which refers to people from countries colonized by Spain, those who come from a Spanish speaking country.
Q. Did everyone embrace Hispanic?
A. No. Even before Hispanic, people had their own self identifiers. People in Texas were calling themselves Tejano. Hispanic included folks who rejected the term because of its proximity with Spain, which colonized many Latin American countries. Chicano used to be a derogatory term, but many Americans with Mexican heritage embraced the identity and the term became widely used during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s to unify the community. It also can refer to someone who has a radicalized consciousness with shared cultural and ethnic identity. Chicanos were really advocating for community and pushing forward our community’s agenda for access to education, political empowerment, improved labor conditions, among other needs. I identify as a Latina, but I also see myself as a Chapina, a term used for someone with Guatemalan heritage.
Q: What was behind the shift to Latino/Latina?
A: Latino/Latina really came from the need or want to expand the umbrella terminology to include Portuguese-speaking folks from Portugal and Brazil.
Q. Recently, some have begun using the term Latinx as a self-identifier. What is the impetus behind that?
A: Latinx is a term not commonly used outside of higher education. In 2020, a Pew Research Center did a study and found that only 3 percent of Latin Americans in the United States use the term Latinx. It has been challenging to find an umbrella term that works for a community who is pan-ethnic, pan-cultural, pan-racial, and gender-neutral. Identity continues to evolve throughout the decades. Every so often we see new terms or labels coming up. So, I don’t think it will stop with Latinx. As an institution, we are trying to showcase our responsibility to an inclusive community and ensure that those living on the margins see themselves within the community. It is important to keep in touch with where community is going, but also honor those who say that is not how I see myself and embrace the differences.
Q: Some reject the term Latinx, while others embrace it. Why is it so heavily debated?
A: Latinx emerged out of the scholarship of the LGBTQ community, specifically the nonbinary, gender-fluid community rejecting gender norms. Latinx as gender-and LGBTQ-inclusive term reflects the broader movement within the U.S. around gender identity.
Not to mention, that Latinx isn’t really designed for the people who reject it is because they see themselves in the scope of the binary — Latina or Latino — or use another self-identifier. The reason why we embrace Latinx is because it really helps to create an inclusive community while it also ties to Latin.