A couple of years ago I was asked to lead a University workshop on identity to help unite a diverse group of Latinx student organizations. This, I knew, would be no easy task, particularly in one-hour's time.
From my research, I knew that any useful discussion on the topic meant finding common ground, and so I borrowed a question from my research and asked the students to share two things: what do they identify as, and why?
It’s the why that is key.
Recognizing its contradictions, I personally use the term "Latinx" broadly because it articulates solidarity. In other words, my own “why” was the desire to recognize language, culture, and nationality, and to honor family and ancestors. Identity is historical memory, and memory is a process of contextualizing our personal experiences and our lives in a society where they are often dehumanized and marginalized.
Identity is our way of reminding ourselves that we are beautiful in a society that doesn’t validate us.
But the question that remains is, do we really need oppressive institutions to validate who we are? I say no, but I do think we should know the history of how events like Hispanic Heritage Month came to be and who was behind them.
Hispanic Heritage Month begins mid-September to acknowledge Latinx people in the U.S. and as I walk the halls of colleges and schools I see fliers where clip art of maracas and sombreros announce events with free “ethnic food."
This was probably not what Congressperson Edward R. Roybal, D-Los Angeles, intended when he authored legislation that would become the foundation of Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. Roybal was a pro-labor Mexican politician who was the only Los Angeles city council member in 1960 to vote against a measure requiring “communists and other subversives” to register with the police.
That same year, he helped to organize the Mexican American Political Association and also demanded an apology from LAPD Police Chief William Parker for saying Latino people in East L.A. were “not too far removed from the wild tribes of the inner mountains of Mexico. I don’t think you can throw the genes out of the question when you discuss the behavior patterns of people."
Later Congressperson Esteban E. Torres, D-Pico Rivera, proposed a bill to expand Hispanic Heritage week to a month. According to house.history.gov, Torres was born in a mining camp in Arizona in 1930. His father was deported when he was five and he never saw him again. He was raised by his mother and grandmother in East L.A.
In an interview, he recognized the strong role his mother and grandmother played in raising him to have a sense of cultural pride. “My mother and my grandmother were very strong women, very educated and very proud to be Mexicans."
Torres began his life in politics through his local branch of the United Auto Workers, and was later elected to the union’s leadership. Torres also founded the East Los Angeles Community Union and was involved with the Plaza de la Raza Cultural Center. When he was elected to office he proposed a bill in 1987 to expand Hispanic Heritage Week to a month, but his bill died in committee.
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill authored by Illinois Senator Paul Simon, a Democrat, creating “Hispanic” Heritage Month, as we now know it. It’s important to understand Reagan’s endorsement in the context of his genocidal wars in Central America, and his support for “Papa Bush” to succeed him as president in elections that year.
The importance of our lives cannot and will not be contained to just one month out of the year where we are allowed to celebrate who we are. We must do that every day and remind ourselves, and each other, of our brilliance, but I wish to do so knowing our histories.
We must know our past so that we can better understand our present and fight for a better tomorrow for our children because what is stronger for me to know is not just what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for.
I fight for our beauty and brilliance.
As a Xicana who also considers herself an educator of race and ethnic studies, the word “Hispanic” has always been a dirty word to me because the roots of it are within this context of a Reagan administration defining us in an effort to prevent us from defining ourselves.
So as I walk down the halls of colleges and universities and see fliers with maracas, or people announcing that ethnic food would be consumed at events, or how spicy we are, let’s remember our roots.
I am reminded of the struggle I come from, the same struggle that many before us have fought so that I could have more opportunities than previous generations and I proclaim not just this month, but everyday that it is my responsibility to fight for social justice for those who will come next.
We don’t need permission from the institutions to celebrate who we are or validate our lives and so today, I remember what Eduardo Galeano said once that I remind myself of everyday as I move through the world, "It's a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten … We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful."
Irene Monica Sanchez is a Xicana, mama, activist, danzante, artist, writer, poet, educator and Ph.D. Originally born and raised in East and Southeast L.A., she claims the Inland Empire of California as her home.
Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 19, 2016 and republished on Sept. 27, 2017.